SAINT-SYMPHORIEN, Belgium — With the clock ticking down to mere seconds in a four-year conflict that had already killed millions, the folly of death and destruction in World War I became ever more incomprehensible. Yet, even then it could not be stopped.
With both sides in the war already knowing for hours a cease-fire would start at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, hundreds of good men kept falling that morning.
Fear the other side would not abide by the conditions of the armistice, a sheer hatred produced by four years of unprecedented slaughter, blind ambition of commanders who craved that last victory, the inane joy of killing, reason enough not to let humanity shine through a few minutes, hours early. Put together they trumped the lives of soldiers, many of whom were convinced they were on the brink of peace and survival.
With two minutes to go, Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot by a German sniper close to Mons in southern Belgium. Another life shattered in its prime at 25.
Some 250 kilometres (150 miles) away on the Western Front in France, an American soldier Henry Gunther, for reasons still hard to explain a century later, stormed a German post with only one minute left before the armistice and was mowed down by machine-gun fire. He was 23.
“Gunther’s act is seen as almost a symbol of the futility of the larger war,” said U.S. historian Alec Bennett. “He was the last American. I believe he may have been the last soldier on any side to die in World War I.”
Any soldier who died that morning might well be an equal symbol of futility, and the mark of “Nov. 11, 1918” on any headstone at a World War I cemetery makes it especially poignant.
“It was a matter of minutes,” said Corentin Rousman, a Belgian historian working in Mons, where British empire soldiers had their first battle with the Germans in August 1914, and also their last over four years later, when Price perished.
For Commonwealth commanders it must have been especially sweet to retake the city, bringing the war to a full circle right where they lost their first soldier, English Private John Parr who had stumbled onto the Germans on Aug. 21, 1914.
In between, World War I had claimed some 14 million lives, including 9 million soldiers, sailors and airmen from 28 countries. Early on, Germany …read more