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Jacques Kelly: Delving deep into the personal effects at Baltimore's War Memorial

At a distance of 100 years it’s difficult to imagine how the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, affected Baltimore and Maryland.

There were 1,752 official, war-related deaths from our state, and their deaths were felt at the same time many Marylanders were killed or sickened by the pneumonia and influenza that raged in the fall of that year.

On Nov. 13 — just two days after the Armistice — a delegation calling itself the War Mothers of Maryland approached Baltimore Mayor James H. Preston about constructing a memorial hall “to those who gave their lives in the cause of freedom of the world.”

The city was planning a new plaza on the east side of City Hall, and by 1925 what we know today as the War Memorial was dedicated. Baltimore architect Lawrence Hall Fowler won a competition for his stately classical design.

A visit to the War Memorial reveals that this place is exactly what the war mothers had requested. Those who gave their lives are memorialized on its walls in finely incised block letters.

Baltimore City had the largest number of war deaths and the entire east wall, which also contains a stage, is devoted to a listing of the city’s fatalities. The west wall, facing Gay Street, contains the names of Baltimore County’s dead. Other counties’ death rolls are listed along the Fayette Street and the Lexington Street sides of the auditorium.

R. McGill Mackall, a Baltimore artist who lived in Dickeyville, painted the expansive mural in an interior mezzanine over the War Memorial entrance. There’s a silver-toned art deco screen over the stage — designed for the pipes of an organ that was never installed.

The ground floor contains what Joshua Bornfield, manager of the War Memorial, describes as a trophy hall, a repository of records and artifacts. The building also serves as a place where other wars and conflicts are remembered. Veterans groups still assemble in smaller halls and meeting spaces under the auditorium.

The trophy hall serves as something of a Baltimore attic for World War I history. There are not funds to make the space into a finely curated museum, yet the casual approach to the displays of period photographs and items imparts a feeling of humanity to the story that is being told here.

It’s a memorial, and what you see is genuine.

Take, for instance, the donated uniform and belongings of Charles L. Foubert, a soldier who made it home. Or the stories of three fallen Baltimore County men: Martin M. Roberts of Parkville and John J. Strehler of Perry Hall were mechanics assigned to the repair of tanks; Calvin A. Bond of Baldwin is listed as a horseshoer. These guys ranked far below officers, yet they played a role in the conflict. At the War Memorial their stories count.

“It’s hard to imagine what it was like for men who were trained with horses, in a cavalry unit, when they encountered a mechanized tank coming over a hill,” Bornfield said.

Baltimore lent its name to the 313th infantry unit, composed of men from the city and parts of Pennsylvania. The unit’s officers posed for a photograph in 1917 outside a chateau at Champlitte, France, and Bornfield located the photo among the War Memorial’s collection. A sergeant in that unit was Henry Gunther, the last U.S. soldier to die in the Great War . In peacetime, he had lived in a residence facing Patterson Park on Eastern Avenue.

It’s difficult to be sure, but Bornfield believes a man in the photo, with a mustache and wearing a steel helmet, is Gunther. Asked how he located this remarkable photo amid the other items in the historical “attic,” Bornfield says simply: “Luck.”

Sometimes, that’s how it is with records and historical artifacts. In fact, an important footnote on the Gunther story was discovered recently in research at the National Archives, clearing up a point about his death. According to a record found by researcher Mitch Yockelson, Gunther was killed by enemy machine gun fire at 10:58 a.m. Nov. 11, 1918 — not 10:59 a.m. as many have long believed.

One minute or two, it was still an untimely death. The Armistice went into effect at 11 a.m.

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