On this day: Last soldier fallen in WWI

Certain soldiers acquired a tragic posthumous celebrity by dying a matter of minutes before the ceasefire on 11th November 1918. One such was 256265 Private George Lawrence Price of the 28th North West Battalion, Second Canadian Division, who lost his wife at 10.58am in the little Belgian mining village of Ville-sur-Haine near Mons

There have been variant views as to how he died. One version has it that he was killed during a final futile charge; another version suggests he was one of a group of soldiers being thanked by local civilians for their recent liberation when a single shot rang out and killed him.

Whatever the reasons, his death so grieved his comrades that 50 years later survivors of the action returned to Ville-sur-Haine to unveil a bronze plaque in his memory, which is still preserved. The state-of-the-art footbridge over the nearby canal is called the George Price Bridge.

The American Expeditionary Forces can claim a casualty even closer to time than Price, one of 320 Americans who died that day. As the deadline approached, Private Henry Gunther, one of the 313th (Baltimore’s Own) Regiment, with fellow ‘doughboys’, was advancing on a German machine-gun position. Horrified, as they knew the war was about to end, the Germans waved the Americans back, but Gunther kept advancing, was shot and died instantly. The time of his death was recorded as 10.59am.

The last British fatality, according to the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was L/12643 Private GE Ellison, Fifth Royal Irish Lancers. Like Price he died near Mons, when a dismounted patrol of the regiment was confronted by 20 well-entrenched Germans who fired on them and then fled. In this brief exchange Ellison was shot and killed. His time of death is thought to have been 9.30am.

Both he and Price were buried in the beautiful military cemetery of St Symphorien, just a few miles east of Mons, originally built by Germans in 1914.  just yards away from Ellison’s grave is that of the first British soldier to die in action on the Western Front. Private J Parr – date of death, 21st August 1914 – met his end while on a scouting mission on a bicycle.

The proximity is shattering: here we find the beginning and end of the conflict separated by a stretch of sleek Belgian grass shorter than a cricket pitch. That Ellison was aged 40 while Parr is believed to have been 16, points to the remarkable range of ages of the men who fought and fell in the Great War.

As for German casualties on this day, there is the belief that the last fallen soldier of WWI was a junior German officer called Tomas who approached some Americans soldiers with the information that the war ended and that they could take a shelter in the house German soldiers just left vacant. However, the Americans didn’t know that the war had finished because of a communications difficulties and Tomas was shot as he approached them after 11.00.

The casualty statistics for 11th November 1918 are surprising and disturbing. According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s figures, taking into account all countries, all theatres of operation, and fatalities in hospitals or elsewhere from all causes, 860 British and Empire servicemen, and three servicewomen, paid the ultimate price on that historic day.