Nov. 26, 2010: 10:59 — One more minute for Herbert Gunther, by Brenton Phillips

November 26, 2010 by

I’m willing to bet 10:59 a. m. doesn’t mean much to you, other than that it is a minute before 11:00. Clocks control us so robotically we don’t think about single minutes. Why should we? We don’t have time!

I’m also willing to bet the name Herbert Gunther doesn’t mean anything to you, either. I hope, however, that Herbert Gunther and 10:59, the time at which he is forever frozen, will mean something to you after you’ve read this piece.

Recently, we commemorated another Veterans Day. We know the significance of the number eleven associated with that day:  11th month, 11th day, 11th hour — the armistice ending World War I.

Herbert Gunther saw the morning of the 11th day of the 11th month, but he didn’t live to see the 11th hour.

I always had the impression that when the politicians and the generals finally came to their senses in the autumn of 1918 and decided to end the slaughter — the soldiers in the trenches had figured this one out years earlier — and the armistice was signed at 5 a. m. on Nov. 11, the guns would fall silent and the survivors in the trenches would breathe sighs of relief and just wait for 11 a.m. when the armistice would go into effect.

After all, between 1914 and 1918 the casualties were mind-boggling. At the Battle of Loos in September 1915, 16,000 British soldiers died — about four men for every yard of French terrain taken. (The farthest push by British troops was two-and-a-half miles.) On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, again on French soil, 19,000 British soldiers were killed. That’s killed, not wounded, captured, or missing.  Passchendale was another horror among a multitude of horrors.

No wonder German machine gunners, hearing officers’ whistles across No Man’s Land, watched in dismay and disbelief when the American 26th Division went over the top at 10:35 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918.  Perhaps they hoped that there would be a repeat of the Christmas 1914 truce when British, French, and German troops met between the barbed wire, sang carols, drank champagne and wine, shared photos and played soccer with anything that would roll, including helmets. Such peaceful behavior infuriated generals.

But on the morning of Nov. 11, 1918, could fraternization with the enemy still be considered traitorous behavior?

Knowing the war was to officially end in 25 minutes, why bother with another attack?  Why take terrain with blood when it would be handed over anyway after the armistice?  A parting shot? Revenge?

According to historian Joseph Persico, generals at that moment “had two choices:  to stop fighting, save lives and risk censure for not pressing on to the very last; or to keep fighting, spend lives, avoid potential disobedience and perhaps gain victories, even promotions.”

One general attacked a town partly for the bathing facilities his men wouldn’t have if the Germans remained there after 11:00. Seven American commanders ordered their troops to ceasefire as soon as they got word of the armistice. Nine didn’t.

Persico reports that during the last six hours of the war, there were 10,944 casualties on the western front, including 2,738 deaths — the casualties were “nearly 10 percent higher than those on D-Day. There was, however, a vast difference. The men storming the Normandy beaches were fighting for victory. Men dying on Armistice Day were fighting in a war already decided.”

In Shrewsbury, England, bells began ringing at 11:00. Citizens flooded the streets, celebrating the end of the carnage. Minutes later, a bicycle messenger — with other news — rode up to Mr. and Mrs. Tom Owen’s door:  “It is my painful duty to inform you…” British poet Wilfrid Owen had survived combat for two years, suffered shell-shock, recovered in a British hospital, was sent back to France. He wrote some of the most moving poetry ever about the futility of war. Exactly one week before the end, a machine gun ended his war.

And Herbert Gunther? His death is recorded as occurring at 10:59 — the last American to die in the war.

We wonder about time. Should there be a timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan? Is it the right time to let the shaky Iraqi government stand on its own? Complex questions, ones that shouldn’t, can’t, be taken lightly. The right course of action sometimes seems stalemated in ambiguity.

The issue seemed more black-and-white on Nov. 11, 1918. At the risk of committing the logical fallacy of omniscience, I’d bet that one more minute, and Herbert Gunther would have gone home to a long life, a family, a career.

What does this have to do with us 92 years later in North Central Kansas? There are a lot of 10:59 people needing just a little more time. Shall we give them a minute, move our clocks forward to 11:00?

Do it for Herbert Gunther.

Brenton Phillips chairs the English-Communications Department at Cloud County Community College.

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