Military historians have argued for three generations about why the forces battled on, knowing the war was ending. Did the advancing Allies want to humiliate the Germans? Did the retreating Germans keep firing so as to not haul artillery home? At 9:30 am, Private George Edwin Ellison of Britain died in a firefight, trying to retake ground the German side had already agreed to relinquish. At 10:45 am, Private Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon of France was killed by a sniper while carrying a message between trenches. At 10:58 am, Private George Price of Canada was shot chasing a German patrol through a ruined village.And at 10:59 am, Henry Nicholas Gunther of Baltimore—once a supply sergeant, recently busted back to private—charged alone toward a German emplacement, leveling a rifle. The troops behind the machine gun reportedly waved him back, yelling that the war was over. When he kept coming, shooting as he ran, they fired on him. Seconds later, as the silence spread, they climbed out of the gun nest, carried his body back to his company, and shook hands. He was the last American, and possibly the last combatant, to die in World War I.
It is almost certain that those soldiers, the last men killed from each of their countries, knew that the end of the war was within reach. They died regardless, out of respect for what they thought was their duty, or out of inattention, or belief.After a year of a different kind of war, it is difficult not to read their deaths as a cautionary tale. Vaccines have arrived. There is confidence the pandemic can be ended. But for now we have to fight as though the battle continues. We’re likely to be covering our faces and staying home for months yet, and there probably won’t be an Armistice parade where we all throw our masks in the air.
Researchers looking toward the next six months stress that, even though hundreds of thousands of vaccine doses are expected to have been given in 2020, the shots’ effects won’t be visible for a while. That might be because the vaccines are arriving at a time when both new cases and deaths are setting records every day, creating a momentum that will be hard to brake. But the effects might also be hard to see because the first recipients—health care workers and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities—live or work in closed systems. What unfolds inside them may not be visible to the outside world.
“I don't think the vaccine is going to make a big impact on cases in the near future—not until there's a significant portion of us vaccinated,” says Nahid Bhadelia, an infectious disease physician and associate professor at Boston University School of Medicine. “However, 40 percent of deaths are coming from nursing homes, among patients who are much, much older and particularly vulnerable. As we cover that population, which is about 3 million people, you may see mortality go down.”
The Perils of Distracted Fighting
The vaccines authorized so far are not 100 percent effective; the best estimate is that they produce immune responses in 95 out of 100 recipients. But exactly what that response constitutes is still unclear. Researchers are hoping for more data to determine whether they only prevent disease or also prevent infection and transmission to others .