06 November 2018

The Armistice and the Last Men Killed in World War I

Intro Copy

While the “War to End All Wars” did not officially end until January 1920, for all practical purposes the shooting stopped on November 11, 1918. To be precise, the cease-fire was to begin at exactly 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, according to the terms of the Armistice, which was signed by officials of the crippled German government and the Allies, represented by France's Marshal Ferdinand Foch. News of the Armistice, which was signed just after 5:00 a.m. on the morning of the November 11th, spread like wildfire. Even before 11:00 a.m., when the Armistice was scheduled to go into effect, celebrations broke out in cities all over Europe. Soldiers in the trenches heard of rumors of a cease-fire and were elated that they would soon be going home. But, in keeping with the senseless slaughter that had been a hallmark of the war since its beginning in August 1914, the killing would not stop. Unbelievably, just before eleven a.m., American, British and French commanders sent men into battle to gain a few yards of ground that they could have walked peacefully into just an hour later. On the last day of the war, American Expeditionary Forces suffered more than 3,500 casualties. German soldiers, who were also well aware of the Armistice, were stunned that the Allies were sending troops across no-man’s-land just hours or even minutes before the deadline. For those not familiar with the Armistice and the needless casualties that occurred on that day, I would like to recommend the Alexander Street video, The Last Day of World War One, part of the BBC Timewatch series. Narrated by Michael Palin, the video goes into great detail about the needless deaths during the last moments of the war. It features commentary by Joseph E. Persico, author of Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour: Armistice Day, 1918. World War I and Its Violent Climax, which I also highly recommend. According to the video, at exactly 11 o’clock, a German machine gunner, after firing his last round of ammunition, stood up, took off his helmet, bowed to the enemy, turned around and walked off to the rear. "The fighting was over, the roar of the guns had ceased as if by magic...After 1568 days, the Great War, as they called it then, was finally over." There are fairly accurate records of the last Canadian, British and French soldiers killed in the final moments of the war, but the very last soldier to die in World War I was an American: Sgt. Henry Gunther. As Gunther was advancing, with bayonet fixed and firing his weapon at a German machine gun nest, the German soldiers were heard yelling in broken English for Gunther to halt. They even fired bullets over his head as warning shots, but to no avail. Finally, to save their own lives, they fired directly at Gunther. He died at 10:59 a.m. In a sad coincidence, at a cemetery in Belgium, the bodies of John Parr and George Ellison lie just 15 feet from each other. They are, respectively, the first and last British soldiers to die in the Great War. Parr was killed at the age of 16 while advancing on German troops along the Belgium-France border on August 21, 1914. Private Ellison was killed just an hour before the Armistice cease-fire in 1918. In the waning days of the 100th anniversary of World War I, teachers and librarians can help students learn more about Armistice Day, the Treaty of Versailles and all things related to the Great War by searching Research Topics, articles, videos and more in eLibrary. *Books If you would like to know how the First World War began, you could do no better than Barbara W. Tuchman's The Guns of August. For those  unfamiliar with the subject, two excellent one-volume histories of the Great War are A World Undone by G. J. Meyer and Martin Gilbert's The First World War. *Trivia In June 1940, Adolf Hitler forced France to sign its surrender in the same railway car in which a humiliated Germany had signed the Armistice ending World War I just 22 years earlier. Veterans Day, which is celebrated every November 11th in the United States, was originally called Armistice Day. Now, instead of being just the anniversary of the end of World War I, it is a time to pay tribute to all American veterans, living or dead. President Eisenhower changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954. The parents of British war poet Wilfred Owen received the telegram informing them of their son’s death as the church bells in Shrewsbury were ringing out in celebration of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

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