The af­ter­ef­fects of WWI re­sound 100 years later

Maps re­drawn; U.S. took step to­ward su­per­power sta­tus

The Dallas Morning News - - World - Alan Cow­ell, The New York Times

LON­DON — Sec­onds be­fore an ar­mistice for­mally ended World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, Pvt. Henry Ni­cholas Gun­ther, a U.S. sol­dier from Bal­ti­more, mounted a fi­nal, one­man charge against a Ger­man ma­chine­gun nest in north­east­ern France.

The Ger­man gunners, The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported many years later, had tried to wave him away, but he ran on, only to per­ish in a burst of heavy au­to­matic fire — the last sol­dier of any na­tion­al­ity to die in the con­flict — at 10.59 a.m. lo­cal time.

One minute later, un­der the terms of an ar­mistice signed about six hours ear­lier, the Great War, the “war to end all wars,” was over, and the world was an al­tered place.

The ca­su­al­ties since the con­flict’s first en­gage­ments in 1914 ran into many mil­lions, both mil­i­tary and civil­ian. The very na­ture of war­fare had changed ir­re­vo­ca­bly. Em­pires crum­bled, new na­tions arose and the world’s maps were re­drawn in ways that re­ver­ber­ate a cen­tury later. With men away at the front lines, women as­sumed roles in the work­force back home that has­tened their eman­ci­pa­tion and changed so­cial ways for­ever.

The war’s un­fold­ing had been punc­tu­ated by re­lated events that would be­come mark­ers in his­tory: the Easter Ris­ing in Ire­land in 1916; the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion a year later; the Sykes­pi­cot Agree­ment of 1916 and the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion of 1917, which to­gether drew the pa­ram­e­ters of the mod­ern Mid­dle East and fore­shad­owed the cre­ation of Is­rael. In 1917, the United States en­tered the war with a de­ci­sive de­ploy­ment of sol­diers — a first step to­ward tak­ing on the sta­tus of a su­per­power.

Against those over­ar­ch­ing events, Gun­ther’s charge might seem no more than a post­script. Yet his “sad, sense­less end,” as The Bal­ti­more Sun put it, en­dures as an em­blem of the courage and folly of a war that for­mally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

A cen­tury later, a ques­tion re­mains: Should this com­mem­o­ra­tion of Vet­er­ans Day — or Ar­mistice Day, or Re­mem­brance Day, as the date is also known — be the last on this scale? Should the world con­tinue to pause in si­lence to honor the sac­ri­fice and brav­ery of those who fought on the ground?

Some ar­gue that com­mem­o­ra­tions have be­come no more than lip ser­vice. But the warn­ings against col­lec­tive am­ne­sia go back a long way. Even in 1915, long be­fore the ar­mistice, one of the most quoted po­ems of the war, by a Cana­dian mil­i­tary doc­tor, Lt. Col. John Mccrae, imag­ined fallen sol­diers warn­ing the sur­vivors: “If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though pop­pies grow / In Flan­ders fields.”

In to­day’s world of shift­ing in­ter­na­tional alignments and grow­ing na­tion­al­ism, World War I of­fers a re­minder of how eas­ily an ob­scure spark can ig­nite a con­fla­gra­tion. In 2011, for in­stance, when the self­im­mo­la­tion of a fruit ven­dor in Tu­nisia helped start the Arab Spring, who would have imag­ined that, seven years later, his ac­tion could have built into crises that have spread across the re­gion?

Gun­ther’s mo­tives for his last­minute charge were un­clear. Ac­cord­ing to some ac­counts, he had brooded over a de­mo­tion from sergeant af­ter mil­i­tary cen­sors in­ter­cepted a let­ter deemed to be crit­i­cal of the con­duct of the war. He “be­came ob­sessed with a de­ter­mi­na­tion to make good be­fore his of­fi­cers and fel­low sol­diers,” The Bal­ti­more Sun re­ported. He may have suc­ceeded: Posthu­mously, his sergeant’s rank was re­stored, and he was awarded the Distin­guished Ser­vice Cross.

Christo­pher Fur­long/getty Images

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron toured the Thiep­val Memo­rial on Fri­day in Thiep­val, France. The ar­mistice end­ing World War I was signed at the 11th hour of Nov. 11, 1918.

Vir­ginia Mayo/the As­so­ci­ated Press

This memo­rial to U.S. sol­dier Henry Gun­ther, perched on a hill where he died in France, marks the last Amer­i­can bat­tle­front ca­su­alty in World War I. A minute af­ter his death, a truce was de­clared.

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