Today is Armistice Day — what we in the United States now call Veteran’s Day. This is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, the war to end all wars. Hostilities ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
In some ways this is the “forgotten” war as it set the conditions for, and was eclipsed by, World War II. As such, it is fitting that nearly 100 countries, including roughly 60 heads of state, gathered in France to pay their respects to those that fought in the Great War. Ceremonies throughout the weekend honored those that participated, and in particular those that paid the ultimate sacrifice.
The exact number of killed and wounded is unknown, but it is estimated that there were 37 million military and civilian casualties during the four years of conflict with about 10 million military men and women and 7 million civilians killed. The United States joined the war late, in 1917, and lost about 116,000 military personnel from all causes during the war. Altogether a generation of young men were lost to Europe and the Allies. In the first day of one battle — the Battle of the Somme — the British lost an estimated 25,000 soldiers. In the Meuse-Argonne Forest in 1918 an estimated 26,000 Americans lost their lives during the six-week offensive, the most of any battle in American history.
Ironically the U.S. Civil War is often considered the first “modern” war due to the use of trains for transportation, industrialization and organization. The Civil War was studied closely by most major armies of the world, but by the time World War I came around, those lessons were lost or forgotten. Thus, with the advent of mechanized combat using machine guns, tanks, aircraft, poison gas, and other implements of modern war, combat was even more destructive as tactics, operations and strategies were mired in the 19th century. The result was a tremendous waste of life.
I always wondered how I would do when receiving the order to go “over the top” — out of the semi-safe trenches and into no-man’s-land — advancing in a line into the face of relentless machine gun and artillery fire. It was a meat grinder in the most awful sense of the phrase. Unbelievably, commanders on the front continued sending their men over the top on the morning of the Armistice resulting in needless deaths. Reports indicate that 2700 men died on the Western Front on the last morning of the war. According to the Washington Post via a 1919 report in the Baltimore Sun, the last American killed in the war was Henry N. Gunther from Baltimore. He reportedly died at 10:59 from German machine gun fire. The Germans yelled at him and tried to wave him back from their lines. He continued to charge and to fire on their position and they felt they had no choice but to shoot him to save themselves. According to the report, shortly after 11:00 the German soldiers emerged from their position, put Henry Gunther’s remains on a stretcher, and returned him to the American lines.
Many of those killed were never recovered. To honor their memory, countries erected monuments to those unknowns. In Arlington National Cemetery, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was dedicated on 11 November 1921 to honor those nameless Americans that were lost forever. In 1958 unknown soldiers from World War II and the Korean War were also interred beside their World War I comrade and the monument became the Tomb of the Unknowns. Since 1937 the tomb is guarded by soldiers from the Army and since 1948 the guards come from the famous Army Third Infantry Regiment, known as the “Old Guard.”
Please take a moment on this Veteran’s Day to remember the real reason that we honor this day.