First and Last

Grave of Henry Gunther

Grave of Henry Gunther

So following on from my article on the Armistice, what led to it and how it came about, I now want to focus on the impact the procedure and its application had on the men on the ground.

As we have seen, the German forces were already in a state of confusion; their efforts were failing and they were losing ground fast. The American belligerent forces had joined the war effort on the side of the Allied Powers early in 1917 during the Spring Offensive, at a time when the Entente were still counting the cost of the futile Somme offensive of 1916. Germany had hoped to follow up the battle of the Somme with another push, knowing that preparations were being made to bring in the American forces, and hoping to gain the upper hand before that happened. Germany weren’t particularly concerned with American involvement, feeling that the latter’s Army and Navy were inferior and could quite possibly not be mobilized in time to make an effective contribution to the Allied war effort, if at all. However, they wanted to push the Allied forces as far back as they could before reinforcements could arrive.

1917 saw French Commander Marshal Joffre being replaced by General Robert Nivelle; Nivelle came into the position declaring that a continued heavy bombardment of German lines along the Chemin des Dames Ridge area particularly, would be enough to drive their forces back to the Hindenburg line, and secure victory within a matter of days. Despite overwhelming opposition to the plan by both British and French Army commanders and politicians, the new French Prime Minister okayed the plan. The Battle of the Aisne was to follow. The hope was that despite rumblings that America would soon be involved in the War Effort, which many held reservations about how effective their involvement would be, that this push would be successful and negate the need for America, whose forces and inclusion could not be counted on, to get involved at all. The offensive kicked off in April 1917 and progressed for around four or five weeks – unless one is to include the later Battle of La Malmaison in October/November of the same year. The result being around half a million men from all sides became casualties of a series of sub-battles infamous for their horror, most notably Arras and Vimy Ridge. Just four miles of ground were taken, and the aftermath included the sacking of Nivelle, and the mass desertion of French soldiers.

As the Nivelle Offensive was being analysed and its strategic failures weighed, a renewal of the conflict centered around the town of Ypres, in a ridge and plain area known as Passchendaele. Now known as the Third Battle of Ypres, it was to become infamous in History alongside the retreat of Mons, the Somme, Arras and Verdun as a long drawn out arduous pointless mud filled hell which cost the lives of tens of thousands of men, many whom have no known graves, for little gain. America entered the war at some point between these offensives. Although their support was reluctant and minimal, at least in the beginning, compared to that of the Allied forces who had been stuck in the boggy ground of the Western Front for several years, it was enough to start the turning of the tide towards victory against the Germans whose forces on the ground, struggling on short rations and lack of equipment, were beginning to feel the strain. As we have seen, Wilson followed up his nation’s entry with his fourteen points solution and both sides at grass roots level at least, began to see a possible end to hostilities. It wasn’t to be until the later part of the year when this hope was realized.

Now for the figures. We all like figures, they give us perspective.
From the announcement that Germany were actively seeking peace, around September 1918, to the confirmation of the announcement of the Armistice in the dawn hours of November 11th, hostilities continued at the order of the men at the top. The fighting forces knew unofficially two days prior to the signing that the Armistice was going to happen. It wasn’t a case of if, but when. As we know, German army personnel had already begun a mass exodus from the battlefield under their own steam. My focus is on what happened next.

Following the announcement of the Armistice on the morning of November 11th 1918, to take effect from 11am, the American forces up to 1.2 million of them, based mainly around the Argonne forest as part of their contribution to the Meuse-Argonne offensive, were ordered to continue hostilities, and a large contingent were ordered “over the top”, despite knowing that in a few hours the war would be over. During this attack, they would suffer nearly 27 THOUSAND casualties, comparable to similar numbers of French who were with them in the battle that morning. Pershing would later stand at a committee convention into the conduct of American forces at war, and state that to his mind there was no way of predicting that the cease-fire would happen, or hold and therefore it was conceivable that American forces should maintain warfare until instructed otherwise.

The last official Allied casualty of the Great War was 23 year old Henry Gunther, a Baltimore book-keeper of, ironically, German descent. As a result of his heritage, like many others in his area from similar backgrounds, Gunther resisted enlistment following American entry to the War, until eventually he was drafted in late 1917. His unit arrived at the Front in September 1918. Henry had been placed in charge of equipment, specifically uniform during his training and had risen to the rank of Sergeant. Thanks to an intercepted letter, sent to one of his friends back home, bemoaning conditions in France upon his arrival, and the entreaty to avoid the draft as long as possible, Gunther was demoted to Private.

On the morning of the Armistice with just minutes left before the cease-fire, Gunther’s unit were positioned at Meuse close to a German machine gun post across a roadblock in the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. The squad took cover, and prepared to wait out the end of hostilities. Gunther, however, had other ideas. Feeling morose about his demotion, he decided that he wished to end the war on a high note. In an effort to regain his self-pride, he stood up, against the advice of his friend Sergeant Ernest Powell, and charged with his bayonet towards the German roadblock. The Germans tried to wave him back, aware that the ceasefire was imminent, but Gunther would not be subdued, he started firing and the German sentries had no choice but to fire back. They opened fire with a short burst and Gunther was hit, killing him instantly. The time was 10.59 am. Gunther’s actions have remained a mystery. His comrades and family speculated that Gunther was trying to redeem himself, particularly with regard to his German heritage; not wanting to be accused of sympathizing with the enemy. His rank was post-humously reinstated.

Close by, French forces had not been informed of the Armistice, nor had their German counterparts. French army messenger, 40 year old former shepherd Augustin Trebuchon, who had enlisted as hostilities broke out was around halfway between the villages of Sedan and Charleville-Mezieres. Rain had been falling all morning, and the river was flooded. A unit of French were crossing a hastily constructed plank bridge across the river, and several were lost when they fell off and drowned. Heavy fog had prevented their scout planes from taking off that morning to monitor the German position on the other side of the river. At 10.30 the fog cleared and the now-airborne spotters were able to communicate positions to the attacking French, and the accompanying artillery, to prevent them hitting their own men.

Their commander was felt to have used his men in continuing hostilities in order to force the signatures of the Armistice committee. It wasn’t until 6pm that night that the confirmation of the ceasefire was received and action ceased. 91 French soldiers died during the action in that area that day. Trebuchon was the last. He was found near the railway line with a deep fatal wound in his right side. In his hand was the message for the French troops to muster for food at 11.30. French Officers quietly withdrew their men, following the cease fire and left their dead without honour. All the French men who died that day had their date of death changed to the 10th November. It is thought the French commanders were embarrassed to have ordered their men to continue fighting despite knowing the Armistice had been signed. Trebuchon’s unit were discreetly left out of the victory parade through Paris in 1919.

An equally auspicious end had met the first men to be killed as a result of the Great War. I had to word this carefully as War hadn’t officially been declared when 21-year-old Corporal Jules-Andre Peugeot was one of two men shot and killed on the morning of August 2nd 1914. Peugeot, a former teacher, was a regular soldier in the French army as Europe descended into war, having been called up the previous year to serve his period of compulsory military service. Despite formal declaration of war still being two days away, Peugeot and a small contingent of men were based in a billet in a house in the town of Joncherey for defensive purposes, knowing a formal declaration of war was imminent and German forces were advancing. At around 9.30 the owner’s daughter rushed in to tell them a German cavalry unit had entered the town. Peugeot and his comrades, eating breakfast, stood up and made ready to head off the Germans.

They proceeded through town until they confronted Leutnant Albert Mayer, and his men, and ordered their surrender, and arrest. Mayer had already attacked and wounded a French sentry on the outskirts of town that morning, with his sabre. Upon being stopped by Peugeot and his men, he pulled out his revolver and shot Peugeot in the shoulder. Peugeot attempted to fire back but missed, his comrades also retaliated and Mayer was hit in the head and stomach, killing him. Peugeot stumbled back to the house where he died shortly afterwards on the front steps.

The first British soldier to die in the Great War was underage, and killed in the same area as the last. 17-year-old John Parr was a regular soldier, who joined the army in 1912 aged just fifteen, giving his age as 18 years and one month. John was the youngest child of eleven born to milkman Edward Parr and his wife Alice in Finchley, London. Several of his siblings did not live past four years of age. After leaving school and working as first a butcher’s boy, then a golf-caddy, it is felt John enlisted to see a little adventure and to get the benefits of the basic things that the Army offered – regular pay, and two square meals a day. As war broke out, John was sent to France where he was given the job of reconnaissance cyclist. Just a few weeks later, on 21st August 1914, as the British Expeditionary Force encountered German troops at Mons, Parr and a fellow cyclist were sent from their position alongside the canal at Bettignies, outside of Mons, to scout and find the enemy position. They crossed over the border into Belgium, and to look for a German force positioned near Obourg. During this mission they encountered a German Cavalry force, and Parr instructed his comrade to return as fast as possible to report, while he held them off. He never returned.

Although details remain sketchy it is thought that Parr was killed during an ensuing exchange of fire although it isn’t clear who exactly was responsible. The following few days saw the notorious “retreat from Mons”, and it could be that Parr was a casualty of this action, however one would presume if he had still been alive in the two days prior to the retreat, he would have made attempts to return to his unit, or at least notify them of his whereabouts. Parr’s body remained where it fell. It wasn’t until Alice Parr pressed Army command for details of her son, having not heard from him, that it was discovered he was still missing, and initially had been assumed captured. He is now buried in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery. Close by is the grave of Lieutenant Maurice Dease VC, who along with Private Sidney Godley VC, defended the retreat just two days later on the 23rd August, of British troops, resulting in their award of the Victoria Cross for gallantry. Dease was killed in his efforts, becoming the first VC recipient of the war. Godley was taken prisoner and was notified while captive that he too had been awarded the highest medal of honour.

Another poignant grave that faces that of Parr, just fifteen feet away is that of George Edwin Ellison. Ellison was a former regular soldier, who had left the Army in 1912 upon his marriage to Hannah, and subsequent birth of James a year later. He was working as a coal miner when he was recalled for service as hostilities broke out. Ellison saw the retreat of Mons, and participated in several of the major battles of the war, including First Ypres, Armentieres, La Bassee, Loos and Cambrai. 1918 saw Ellison back in Mons in the days leading up to the Armistice. On the morning of the eleventh November, Ellison’s unit were tasked like many others with following the German retreat, until the ceasefire became official, at which point they were to stand to, consolidate their positions and await further instructions. At 9.30, Ellison and his squad were in receipt of information that a German force were in nearby woods. They took up a scouting mission, and advanced to the woods. Moments later shots rang out. Ellison was dead.

Canadian forces were given similar orders to those of the British; maintain advance to the rear of retreating Germans, try not to engage in any further hostilities and be ready to stand to and consolidate positions upon the official ceasefire. As a precautionary measure, due to the possible delays in their own subsequent withdrawal, they were also told to pay attention to possible billets for the next few days as their position was open with little available shelter.

The 28th Battalion were also in the region of Mons, and were tasked that morning with two objectives, to secure the village of Havre and to reach the Canal du Centre. Havre was taken without any engagement of the retreating Germans, and with a small amount of retaliatory machine gun fire, and a bit of a dash the canal was achieved and the Canadian forces positioned themselves and awaited the cease fire. They could see German troops making their retreat through the woods and over the hill at the far side of the canal, but allowed them to continue their retreat unheeded, paying attention to their commanders’ instructions not to involve themselves with anything but the most necessary action.

It is therefore not quite understood why 25-year-old Saskatchewan Private George Lawrence Price made the decision to cross the canal, knowing German soldiers were still in the area making their retreat. It is thought he may have been following up on the advisory to secure accommodation and seeing a row of houses at the far side of the canal, took a patrol including comrade Private Arthur Goodmurphy and two or three others to scout the road and see if they were suitable billets. It was recorded that they crossed under a small amount of fire and when they entered the first house, expected to find the Germans responsible. There was however only the home-owner and his family. The Germans had left by the back door as they entered the front. The same thing happened in the next house; the homeowner however motioned them to be very careful. Price disregarded this advice and as the patrol left the house, one shot rang out. It hit Price in the area of his heart, and he half turned, and down he went caught by Goodmurphy who dragged him back into the house. Despite several people rushing to his immediate assistance, including a young lady from across the road, who ignored pleas for her own safety from ensuing bullets. Private Price’s death is recorded at 10.58 on the 11th November. He lays in the same cemetery as the graves of Ellison, Dease and Parr.

Despite advance notice of the cease-fire, and the opportunity to end hostilities as early as three days prior to the Armistice, the Allied commanders made the decision to continue engaging the enemy and advancing as far as possible in the face of their retreat. Different force commanders were given varying levels of advisory instructions with regard to how heavy their engagement of action was to be, with the consensus that it should be only what was deemed absolutely necessary. Some however appear to have taken the independent and somewhat cavalier approach of ending the conflict with a high note, even using their troops to force rapid agreement to the Armistice Agreement in the face of possible reluctance.

In the few days prior to the official Armistice, and despite knowing the terms had been agreed, over ELEVEN THOUSAND Allied troops became casualties of continued engagement with the enemy. Around 3000 of them were killed on the morning of the Armistice. It has been suggested that several hundred more became casualties in areas such as Africa where news of the cease fire didn’t reach for several days afterwards. Certainly, several “casualties” appear to have been recorded on the Western Front in the hours after the cease fire. This is also attributed to “delay in notification”. The outrage over the prolonged hostile action, unnecessarily, at the cost of several thousand lives, continues to this day.

We shall remember them.

Phoebe.