• Courage and folly of war left in­deli­ble scars.

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ALAN COW­ELL

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, one-man charge against a Ger­man ma­chine-gun 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 might­ily 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 Sykes-pi­cot 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 that was 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. It is a re­minder, too, of a dif­fer­ent age of gal­lantry and pain, be­fore hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence was com­pressed into a pix­e­lated frag­ment, a fleet­ing dis­til­late trans­acted on so­cial me­dia.

A cen­tury on, a ques­tion re­mains: Will, or 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 it on the ground – “lions led by don­keys,” ac­cord­ing to a phrase used to scorn the bum­bling Bri­tish of­fi­cer class drawn from the up­per crust?

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 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, un­easy al­liances and grow­ing na­tion­al­ism, World War I of­fers a re­minder of how eas­ily and un­ex­pect­edly 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 and rekin­dled ri­val­ries rem­i­nis­cent of the Cold War?

The start of World War I is gen­er­ally traced to events in Sara­jevo, then a part of Aus­tria-hun­gary, on June 28, 1914, when Gavrilo Prin­cip, a young Ser­bian na­tion­al­ist, fired a hand­gun and as­sas­si­nated Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand, the heir to the Haps­burg throne, and his wife, So­phie. The event caused a chain re­ac­tion that pro­pelled al­liances, am­bi­tions and in­se­cu­ri­ties into a global con­flict driven by tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vance – poi­son gas and bat­tle tanks on land, com­bat planes in the skies, war­ships above the waves, and sub­marines below them.

A flurry of dec­la­ra­tions of war and se­cret pacts in Au­gust 1914 drew the broad bat­tle lines be­tween, on one side, Ger­many, Aus­tria-hun­gary, the Ot­toman Empire and their al­lies; and, on the other, Bri­tain, France, Ja­pan, Rus­sia and their sup­port­ers. Over time, the fight­ing spread to far­away im­pe­rial out­posts, in­clud­ing China, the Mid­dle East and Africa. Of­ten, the fo­cus was on the stale­mated bat­tles of at­tri­tion that pro­duced hor­rific ca­su­al­ties in Europe. On the first day of the Bat­tle of the Somme in north­ern France on July 1, 1916, for in­stance, around 20,000 Bri­tish sol­diers died and some 40,000 oth­ers were wounded – ca­su­al­ties that set a grue­some bench mark in the an­nals of slaugh­ter.

When the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion ended Moscow’s ap­petite for the war, Ger­many sensed vic­tory. But then the United States en­tered the fray, with the first of its sol­diers land­ing in France in June 1917. By 1918, big of­fen­sives on the Western Front had turned the tide. But not with­out pun­ish­ing losses.

At the Meuse-ar­gonne Amer­i­can Ceme­tery in north­east­ern France, the largest U.S. mil­i­tary grave­yard in Europe, 14,246 white head­stones mark the burial places of U.S. 1st Army sol­diers who per­ished in the fi­nal, 47day cam­paign that ended with the armistice.

It is worth not­ing that one of those head­stones is that of Cpl. Fred­die Stow­ers, the first black Amer­i­can to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in World War I as a mem­ber of a racially seg­re­gated unit. (It was awarded posthu­mously in 1991, more than 70 years af­ter he was mor­tally wounded by ma­chine-gun fire on Sept. 28, 1918.)

In light of Amer­ica’s present-day pas­sions over im­mi­gra­tion, it is also worth ob­serv­ing that nearly a quar­ter of the draftees in 1918 were im­mi­grants, the re­sult of an in­flux that had trans­formed Amer­ica’s de­mog­ra­phy into a “melt­ing pot” of lin­eages – Bri­tish, Ger­man, His­panic, Ital­ian, Slav – ac­cord­ing to Ge­of­frey Wawro, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory and direc­tor of the Mil­i­tary His­tory Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of North Texas.

Gun­ther was him­self de­scended from Ger­man im­mi­grants. His mo­tives for his – lit­er­ally – 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. In one way, he may have suc­ceeded: posthu­mously, his sergeant’s rank was re­stored, and he was awarded the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Cross.

The armistice was signed in a rail­road car in the Com­piègne For­est, north of Paris. It paved the way for the Treaty of Ver­sailles in 1919, which im­posed such oner­ous terms on the de­feated Ger­many that it is of­ten cited as a rea­son for Hitler’s Nazi ide­ol­ogy find­ing so much res­o­nance. It was no co­in­ci­dence that, when France fell to a venge­ful Ger­many in 1940, Hitler chose the same rail­road car, in the same lo­ca­tion, for his French ad­ver­saries to ac­cept their ca­pit­u­la­tion – as Ger­man com­man­ders had done in 1918.


An Amer­i­can gun crew dur­ing the Meuse-ar­gonne of­fen­sive in France in 1918. Dur­ing World War I, mil­lions died, em­pires crum­bled, na­tions were formed and maps were re­drawn in ways that re­ver­ber­ate might­ily a cen­tury later.

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