It was 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 — a century ago Sunday — the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Now called Veterans Day in the United States, it was the end of World War I, the Great War, which had killed and maimed millions of people and turned parts of Europe into a wasteland.
It was the end of four years of unimaginable calamity.
Men and women were killed on an industrial scale with poison gas, machine guns and flamethrowers. Combat became mechanized, and machines helped consume much of a generation of young men, including more than 100,000 Americans.
The conflict was so devastating that it was called “the war to end all wars.” Surely nothing like it could ever happen again. But it left a legacy of grievance and disorder, and historians now see it as Act I of the two-part tragedy that culminated in World War II and still echoes today.
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But in 1918, soldiers knew only that the war was over.
“No more horrors,” British Lt. Col. William Murray wrote. “No more mud and misery. Just everlasting peace.”
The battle-weary French Cpl. Louis Barthas wrote: “How many times had we thought about this blessed day. … How many times had we peered into the mysterious future, looking for this star of salvation."
In Washington that night, bonfires burned on the Ellipse, south of the White House.
This weekend, the solemn day is being marked across Europe at the battlefields and cemeteries of France and Belgium, and in the United States at the future site of the National World War I Memorial in Washington, at Washington National Cathedral and at Arlington National Cemetery.
World War I had lasted more than four years, pitting Germany and its allies against France, Britain, Russia and their allies. The United States entered the war late but played a crucial role in the victory.
It had started over the assassination of an Austrian archduke in 1914 and rapidly pulled in Europe’s major powers via a tangle of alliances, and a certain eagerness to be tested in war. “God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,” the British poet Rupert Brooke wrote in 1914.
Battles went on for months, trapping the combatants in what historian Paul Fussell called a “troglodyte world” of squalid trenches and endless artillery barrages.
In his book “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Fussell calculated that there were 25,000 miles of trench lines on the Western Front, enough to encircle the earth.
Between the trenches was the toxic, uninhabitable “no man’s land,” infected with putrefying corpses, rats and chemical agents, and swept by machine-gun fire.
In such conditions, the British and French fought the Germans at the Battle of the Somme from July 1, 1916, until the following November. On just the first day, almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed.
At the Battle of Verdun, the Germans fought the French for nine months in 1916. The Germans suffered 325,000 casualties, including more than 140,000 men killed. French losses were about the same.
In the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the Americans and the French fought the Germans for six weeks in 1918. Twenty-six thousand Americans were killed — the most of any battle in American history.
Some soldiers, called “Neverendians,” thought the war would go on forever and become “the permanent condition of mankind,” Fussell wrote, “like the telephone and the internal combustion engine, a part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience.”
On Nov. 9, 1918, two German generals went to a stately mansion outside the Belgian town of Spa to call on the 59-year-old German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The army was collapsing, the Kaiser was told. Armistice terms demanded by the Allies must be accepted. The war had been a disaster for Germany. Back home, the people were in revolt.
The kaiser, who bore much of the blame for fueling the war, objected.
“I shall remain at Spa, and then lead my troops back to Germany,” he replied, according to historian Joseph E. Persico.
“Sire, you no longer have an army,” said Chief of Staff Gen. Wilhelm Groener.
The kaiser agreed to abdicate and seek refuge in Holland. But as he was pondering a draft of his statement renouncing the throne, a German telegraph agency, tipped to what was coming, broke the news: The kaiser was finished.
“Treason, gentlemen!” the kaiser bellowed when he heard of the report. “Barefaced, outrageous treason!”
The last death
The armistice was signed at 5:10 a.m. in a railroad car in the Forest of Compiegne, northeast of Paris, an event described in Persico’s 2004 book, “Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour.”
But it didn’t go into effect until 11 a.m.
All the soldiers had to do was stay alive until then.
“I am as nervous as a kitten,” the British sergeant Cude wrote. “If I can only last out the remainder of the time, and this is everyone’s prayer. I am awfully sorry for those of our chaps who are killed this morning and there must be a decent few of them too.”
Indeed, in some places the war went on insanely right up to 11 a.m.
At 10:45 a.m., the American 313th regiment — Baltimore’s Own — had already taken the town of Ville-devant-Chaumont. But the brigade commander, Brig. Gen. William J. Nicholson, had ordered “no let up” until 11.
At that moment, Henry N. Gunther, a draftee from East Baltimore, was pinned down in the fog by two German machine guns. Gunther had been an employee of the National Bank of Baltimore. But he was of German descent, had relatives in Germany, and worried that his comrades thought he was a sympathizer, according to Persico and old newspaper stories.
He tried to prove he wasn’t by an almost reckless action, his fellow Doughboys said later.
“We couldn’t see them, but we hugged the ground and sent a lot of rifle fire in the direction of the position,” Gunther’s buddy Ernest F. Powell recalled of the moment many years later.
“Gunther, who was lying by my side, suddenly jumped up and ran into the fog toward the Germans,” Powell wrote in the Baltimore Sun Magazine in 1968.
A 1919 report in the Sun, gathered from Gunther’s buddies by a former Sun reporter, said that as Gunther charged, the Germans yelled and waved him back. But he kept on, firing with an automatic rifle. Finally, one of the machine guns fired a short burst.
“That was the end of the war for Henry Gunther,” Powell wrote.
It was 10:59 a.m. Gunther is believed to be the last American killed in World War I, and one of the estimated 2,700 men killed on both sides on the Western Front on the war’s last day.
Shortly after 11, the German gunners emerged, put Gunther’s body on a stretcher and carried it into the American lines.
They had to shoot him, they said, because he wouldn’t stop, and it was either him or them.
Spared from battle
The night before, amid rumors of an armistice, the American 115th Infantry Regiment, an outfit from Maryland, had received what one of its chaplains called a death sentence.
Battered by bloody weeks at the front, where several men had committed suicide and others had suffered self-inflicted wounds, the regiment had been resting and recovering behind the lines.
But on Nov. 10, the 115th had been ordered to move out and join the assault on the ancient fortress city of Metz, then in Germany, scheduled for Nov. 14.
“All hopes were dashed,” the chaplain, Lt. Frederick C. Reynolds, wrote. They would be returning to “hell.”
The following morning, “we rolled our packs … and with heavy hearts turned grim faces toward Metz,” he recalled after the war.
But just before the march began, came word of the armistice.
There would be no attack on Metz. The war was over.
“You can imagine — no, you can’t imagine, it is impossible for anyone to imagine who did not experience it — the sense of relief and pure joy,” he wrote. “The feeling of gratitude was too deep for noisy expression. … We quietly looked at each other, whispered a ‘Thank God,’ and wondered if it could really be true.”
Across France, church bells rang, and people sang “La Marseillaise.” In Paris, delirious citizens poured into the streets, linked arms, and clambered on top of trucks and cars. Veterans with crutches and empty coat sleeves joined in.
In the German trenches, joyous soldiers shouted that the war was over, and threw weapons and gear toward the American lines, according to Persico.
In London, at 11, Big Ben tolled for the first time in four years. Crowds rejoiced outside Buckingham Palace. In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Lloyd George said, “I hope we may say that … on this fateful morning, came to an end all wars.”
But some men weren’t so happy.
U.S. Army Lt. Col. George S. Patton Jr., for one, was dismayed that it was over. The future World War II hero wrote a bleak poem, “Peace — November 11, 1918,” in which he longed for more combat, according to National Archives historian Mitchell Yockelson.
I stood in the flag-decked cheering crowd
Where all but I were gay ...
Another distraught soldier was a German veteran recovering in a hospital after being gassed. A clergyman broke the news of the armistice to the patients.
“I tottered … my way back to the dormitory, threw myself on my bunk, and dug my burning head into my blankets and pillow,” he wrote later. “That night I resolved that, if I recovered … I would enter politics.”
The soldier was Adolf Hitler.