A hor­rific war that re­made the world

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - NEWS - BY ALAN COW­ELL 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, 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 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.

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?

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?

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, 47-day 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.)

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.

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