The Korean War is usually designated as the Forgotten War, but we might just as well apply the handle to the First World War, at least here in the United States. We tend to focus on the wars which we can glibly rationalize as having done some good — the American Revolution threw off the shackles of tyranny, the Civil War freed the slaves and united the divided country, World War II saved civilization. We remember Vietnam out of shame and guilt, for the conduct of the war itself, and for the treatment of the veterans who survived it. Amidst that odd jumble of national pride and self-flagellation, World War I tends to get lost.
When American doughboys began arriving in France in 1918, the war had been raging through Europe, Africa, and the Middle East for four years. Fighting along the Western Front in France and Belgium was especially bloody. Allied and German soldiers dug in, constructed long lines of trenches fortified with barbed wire and protected by machine guns, withstood constant artillery bombardment, and tried not to choke to death on the mustard gas, chlorine, and phosgene. There were major losses on both sides, over three million Allies and Germans killed on the Western Front alone, with no major advances for most of the war.
The names are probably familiar, even if you don’t remember what they mean: the Marne, the Somme, Cambrai, Ypres, the Ardennes, the Argonne, Flanders, Verdun.
The terms introduced or popularized by the war may only evoke a faint recognition today, but they still carry a chill. They have been stamped on our collective subconscious: trench foot, devil’s paintbrush, U-boat, stormtrooper, zero-hour, over the top, no-man’s-land.
It was a long war, and a bloody war, and ultimately a vain war. It was called the war to end all wars, yet just twenty years after it officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler’s army invaded Poland, igniting the Second World War.
Unofficially, the war ended with the signing of an armistice between the Allies and the Germans in a railroad car in the Compiègne Forest. The armistice was signed early on the morning of November 11, 1918. It went into effect at 11 a.m., the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, ensuring generations of future high school history students would get at least one test question correct. Since then, Armistice Day, or Remembrance Day, has been marked throughout the western world every eleventh of November. Originally set aside to memorialize the end of the First World War, it has evolved over the last ninety years into a day to honor those who fought in all wars, wherever and whenever. Since 1954 it has been known as Veterans Day here in the United States.
In Belgium they call it the Day of Peace. It’s marked by the display of poppies and recitations of “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae on a scrap of paper as he stood in the midst of the Second Battle of Ypres. I first heard it on November 11, 1994, the first of the four Veterans Day assemblies I attended at Clear Spring High School. Jim Hutson, history teacher, Marine, and Vietnam War veteran, recites it every year:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Millions of French, British, German, Belgian, Italian, and Russian troops were killed during the war, but the final recorded combat death was an American, Henry Gunther. He was a Maryland boy, born and raised in Baltimore. He had been behaving recklessly since being demoted in rank from sergeant to private for writing a letter to a friend that was critical of the Army. On the morning of the armistice Gunther’s company was positioned opposite a German machine gun in Ville-devant-Chaumont, a little village near Verdun. At 10:30 they were informed of the imminent ceasefire. With the end of the war seconds away, Gunther leapt from his position and charged the Germans, firing his rifle through the thick fog. The confused Germans shouted at him to stop, that the war was over. Gunther kept charging. The Germans had no choice. They fired their machine gun, and Gunther fell.
The Germans who killed him rolled Gunther onto a stretcher and carried him back to the American lines, where he was buried. His time of death was listed as 10:59.
Baltimore columnist and radio host Dan Rodricks has an excellent story about the 90th anniversary of the armistice and the death of Henry Gunther in today’s Baltimore Sun.