The heroic, perplexing tale of the Baltimore man who was the last killed in WWI — minutes before Armistice

At 10:59 a.m. Sunday, the bells at the Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery off Belair Road in East Baltimore will ring for Henry Gunther, a Baltimorean remembered as the last U.S. soldier killed in combat in World War I.

Historians recently discovered he died a minute earlier, at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the Armistice went into effect, ending the conflict 100 years ago, on Nov. 11, 1918.

Gunther was stationed in France, and according to published accounts he charged the German line, his bayonet fixed. The soldiers knew the war was about to end — word of the Armistice had swept through the ranks — and yet Gunther ignored the shouts of his comrades who urged him to turn back.

He died in a barrage of machine gun fire.

For his family, Gunther’s death “was nothing that we celebrated,” said Carol Aikman, a great niece who lives in Edgemere.

She calls the circumstances of his death sad and perplexing, and questions what frame of mind the 23-year-old soldier was in when he charged the enemy line moments before peace.

Gunther was born to German-American parents; his grandparents had emigrated in the mid-1800s, according to a biography from the German Society of Maryland.

To the Rev. Siegfried Otto and other members of the German Society, Gunther is a hero pure and simple — and a reminder of the struggles German-Americans faced to prove their loyalty to the United States.

“He was a patriot,” said Otto, who will give the blessing at a memorial honoring the 100th anniversary of the war’s end.

With the onset of the Great War, German culture came under attack in Baltimore and cities across America, and Germanic influences were purged from daily life. The effect was felt by many like Gunther, who grew up in a German- and English-speaking house on Eastern Avenue and attended German Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church.

“A lot of ‘Schmidts’ became ‘Smith,’ and that sort of thing,” said Theodore J. Potthast Jr., another member of the German Society.

While treatment of German-Americans during World War I was not as draconian as discrimination faced by other minority groups — for example Japanese-Americans during World War II — it hastened the assimilation of once-proud Germans.

Some believe it might have contributed to Gunther’s demise.

“It may have been that he was trying to prove his loyalty when he made the charge,” Potthast said.

The Baltimore Sun’s coverage from the era attests to the suspicions and hostility that many directed to Germans, pejoratively called “huns” in headlines. The slur didn’t make sense, factually speaking, but stuck anyway, said Bill Fischer, a Portland, Ore., academic who has written extensively about German-American identity.

“The notion was, they’re barbarians, they’re warlike, they come from the east, let’s call them ‘huns,’ ” he said.

Baltimore was home to a significant German immigrant population, and several city public schools taught primarily in German. Suddenly, though, citizens protested teaching the “hun” language.

Many German-language newspapers ceased publication. Downtown’s German Street — then home to a number of banking institutions — was renamed Redwood Street after bankers complained to City Council. The new name was a tribute to Lt. George Buchanan Redwood, the first Baltimore officer to lose his life in the conflict.

Sauerkraut was reimagined as “liberty cabbage.” The dachshund became the “liberty hound.”

“There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism,” former President Theodore Roosevelt said in a 1915 speech in New York. “The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

There were, in fact, German agents and saboteurs in Baltimore. The infamous “Black Tom” explosion, which killed four people and destroyed stores of ammunition in New Jersey in 1916, was plotted by German agents in the third-floor attic room of Hansa Haus, a building that still stands at Charles and Redwood streets.

Perhaps as a result of such incidents, many people of German descent were unjustly accused of being traitors. A 1918 article in The Sun suggested that despite the large number of German-American casualties in the war, and the fact that many German-Americans served in the U.S. military, “the average man in the street” was suspicious of nearly every person of German extraction.

“The anti-German sentiment was really not valid because you had German-Americans fighting for America against Germany, yet they were still persecuted,” Potthast said.

Hatred had its limits. Mary J. Manning, who has researched the issue of German treatment during the first world war, said that although individual Germans were locked up or watched by police during the conflict, there were too many German-Americans to be interned on a large scale as Japanese-Americans were 25 years later.

Plus, German-Americans weren’t necessarily identifiable on looks alone. “If you can point to someone who looks different, you can be more prejudiced,” Manning said.

The effect was more subtle. Places where German immigrants gathered for picnics and social events “fell under a cloud,” Manning said.

Weeks before he died, Gunther was demoted to private from sergeant after a letter he wrote complaining about poor conditions on the front was intercepted by Army officials. After his death, his comrades in the 313th Infantry told a Sun correspondent that Gunther felt “he was under a cloud” since his demotion.

“Particularly he was worried because he thought himself suspected a German sympathizer,” according to the article, published in 1919.

“[Gunther’s] fiancee even broke up with him,” said Aikman, his descendant.

Gunther’s peers reported that he began taking on risky assignments, including delivering messages to the front lines as a runner. On one mission he was shot in the wrist by German fire — he bandaged the wound himself and kept reporting for duty.

Bob Wisch, director of the German Society of Maryland, believes at least part of Gunther’s motivation for running into the line of fire on Armistice Day was to prove to the Army his loyalty to the United States.

“I would say that’s a large percentage of why he did do it,” said Wisch, who wrote a brief history of Gunther’s life. “He wanted to say that he loved the Army.”

If it was a quest for redemption, paid for in blood, the gesture is still remembered 100 years later.

In France, near the Belgian border, a monument marks the spot where Gunther died. A few years ago, the German Society of Maryland erected a new marker at his grave.

His home country also honored the last man killed in the Great War. Gunther was posthumously restored to the rank of sergeant, and was awarded a medal for bravery.

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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