When the war started in 1914,
most Americans considered it “Europe’s war.”
A hit song in 1915 was titled “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier” and President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1916 with the campaign slogan “He kept us out of war.”
German belligerence soon had Americans rethinking the wisdom of isolation, said Bruce Malone, a historian and superintendent of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.
“Unrestricted warfare, sinking ships with Americans on them or American ships” and the infamous Zimmermann telegram in which Germany promised to give Mexico some American territory if it kept the U.S. engaged shifted the momentum, he said.
“Even President Wilson, who did not want to be in the war, had no choice,” Malone said.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. declared war, much to the relief of its European allies.
“It wasn’t going well in Europe at the time, and the Germans were actually gaining some momentum. The Allies were essentially running out of men to fight the war,” Malone said.
There was one problem though, he added.
“We join the war. We’ve made promises, but we don’t have an army. Certainly not of the European standard,” he said.
Speed was of the essence. Russia left the war in March 1918 and Germany had sent its troops to the Western front for a final full onslaught. Just in time, U.S. soldiers started arriving en masse.
Pershing, disregarding British and French pleas to use U.S. troops to beef up depleted lines under British and French command, always wanted his men to fight as an independent American force.
A major breakthrough came at Belleau Wood, when U.S. forces stopped a German advance on Paris against heavy odds. It proved their mettle to the enemy and allies alike.
The Americans kept building on their newly acknowledged grit through the end of the war. Saenz was there to record it.
“The bloody fighting and our victory was the decisive blow that finished the Teutonic pride and dispelled forever the Germans’ false dream of global conquest,” he wrote after a Nov. 2 victory.
Yet nine days later, villages were still being taken, attacks were still being thwarted with heavy losses and rivers were still being crossed under enemy fire. Questions remain whether the gains were worth all the human losses.
Historian Joseph Persico estimated the total dead, wounded and missing on all sides on the final day was 10,900.
Pershing even had to explain to Congress the high number of lastday losses.
With two minutes to go, Canadian Pvt. George Lawrence Price, 25, was killed in Belgium by a German sniper.
France, a 23-year-old American, Henry Gunther, was killed by German machinegun fire one minute before the armistice.
Trebuchon, 40, also was shot minutes before the cease-fire. He was running to tell his comrades where and when they would have a meal after the armistice.
All three are considered their nations’ last men to fall in combat.
Anti-German sentiment ran high after the U.S. declared war in April 1917, and Gunther and his family in Baltimore were subjected to the kind of prejudice and suspicion that many of German descent faced at the time.
“It was not a good time to be German in the United States,” said historian Alec Bennett.
Gunther had little choice when he got drafted. He was given the rank of sergeant, but he later was demoted when he wrote a letter home critical of the conditions in the war.
Soon after, he was thrown into the biggest U.S. battle of the war, the Meuse-Argonne offensive in northeastern France.
There were reports he was still brooding over his demotion right on Nov. 11. When he emerged from a thick fog in the valley around Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, he and his comrades faced a German machine gun nest on the hillside.
Indications are the Germans fired one salvo over his head as a warning, knowing the war was almost over. But he still charged.
“His time of death was 10:59 a.m., which is just so haunting,” Bennett said. Gunther was recognized by Pershing as the last American to die on the battlefield.
Questions remain whether it was a suicide run, an attempt at redemption or an act of devotion.
“Gunther’s act is seen as almost a symbol of the futility of the larger war,” Bennett said.
But there was one more cruel twist for his family: They were unaware he had been killed.
Upon his expected return “they went to the train station to meet Henry — not there!” Malone said.
But there was no mystery surrounding the death of Price, the Canadian. It was an utterly senseless loss of life.
He was a farm laborer in Saskatchewan when the swirl of history plucked him off the land in October 1917 as the Allies sought ever more manpower for the Western Front.
The summer after he was drafted, he was part of the surge of victories that seized villages and cities right up to Nov. 11. By that time, Canadians were retaking Mons in southern Belgium, where soldiers from the British Commonwealth had their very first battle with the Germans in August 1914.
It was especially sweet for the Commonwealth commanders to retake the city, bringing the war full circle where they lost their first soldier, English Pvt. John Parr, on Aug. 21, 1914.
Price decided to check out homes along the canals while civilians in the center of Mons had already broken out the wine and whiskey they had hidden for years from the Germans to celebrate with the Canadians.
A memorial to Henry Gunther, regarded as the last American soldier to die in World War I, is on a hill in Chaumont-devantDamvillers, France.