I want to tell you a heck of a story. As the autumn sun ineffectually rose above the eastern horizon, Private First Class Arthur Goodmurphy peered suspiciously across the Canal du Centre, which split the tiny village of Harve, Belgium in two.
At the tender age of twenty-one, Arthur was already a veteran. He’d been part of the slaughter on the Somme in 1916, and a witness to the horror of Passchendaele in 1917. And now, as the winter of 1918 waited just over the horizon, Arthur could sense that the war was almost over. The Germans were almost done for.
In the last three months the Canadian Corps had driven the German army out of the trenches, and then left the trenches, those symbols of slaughter and misery, far behind; along with their protective dugouts and tunnels.
The last month of the war, fought above ground, in the open, had seen the worst butchery so far in a war renowned for butchery. What kept Arthur Goodmurphy and his fellow Canadians fighting despite the lengthening causality lists was that they were finally winning. God only knew what kept the Germans fighting. Just at dawn the Canadian troops had fought their way into the Belgium town of Mons, where the British army had begun the war four long bloody years before. Arthur had been ordered to take four men and advance to the canal and see what the Huns on the other side were up to.
With his first sight of the canal, what worried Arthur was what the next day would bring. Would his battalion have to fight to cross this canal? Was the footbridge across the canal mined? Was German artillery zeroed in to cut his battalion down as they crossed the bridge? Or had the Germans just kept running this time? Arthur felt a long way from the open prairies of his native Saskatchewan. But he knew the way home lay across that canal. He stood up, and said to the young man beside him, “Come on, George. Let’s have a look.” As they took their first steps in the open the patrol spotted a German machine gun crew setting up in the attic of a house on the far shore. Experienced soldiers, they knew they had to cross the open ground before the deadly weapon could begin shooting. They dashed the hundred yards across the bridge, their boots pounding on the boards.
On the other side they ran up the narrow street, up to the door of the first brick house. Without pausing, young Private George Price kicked the door in, and the others followed him. Inside they found Monsieur Stievenart and his son, six year old Omer. Monsieur Stievenart explained that the Germans had just left by the back door. Immediately the four privates moved on to the next house, where they crashed in on an elderly couple, the Lenoirs. Again they were told the Germans had just run out the back door. But now they could hear a German machine gun firing somewhere in the village, and bullets chipping off the outside walls. Arthur realized the patrol had now accomplished its goal. The Germans had been forced to reveal their intentions to defend the canal. And now the patrol had to get back with that word. George Price led the way, out the door, and Arthur followed. As they stepped into the street the machine guns suddenly stopped. In that second of silence George turned as if to say something to Arthur and a single shot rang out. George fell forward, into Arthur’s arms. Awidening red stain spreading across George’s chest.
The squad struggled to pull their comrade back inside. From somewhere a Belgium nurse appeared and began to tend to George. But it was to no effect. Private George Lawrence Price died a few moments later on the floor of small house in Belgium. The Lenoirs provided a blanket, which the three Canadians used to carry their fallen comrade back across the canal. Strangly they had to dodge no fire on their ran cross the footbridge.
As they reached the western shore, they were met by Captain Ross, who informed them that the firing had stopped because the war had just ended; on the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, of 1918. That made George Price the last man killed in World War One. It is a great story, and partly true. George Lawrence Price, serial number 256265, had been born in Newfoundland and enlisted in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a town of just 14,000 in 1918. He was "conscripted", meaning he was a draftie, and so was a perfect example of the sacrifices demanded by this war. He was officially listed as being killed by a sniper’s bullet at 10:57 A.M., just three minutes before the cease fire was to take effect.
The last Frenchman to die was forty year old Augustin Trebuchon, who was carrying word of the armistice to the front lines when he was killed at 10:45 A.M. Private George Ellison was supposedly the last Englishman killed, at 10:50 A.M. The last American killed in World War One was alledgedly Private Henry N. Gunther, from Baltimore, Maryland, who died in an attack on the town of Ville-Devant-Chaumont, again at 10:50 A.M.
Of course none of the grieving families were told at the time their loved one had been the last to die. That would have held them up as an example of the futility and waste of the war. Instead most were told the deaths had occured on November 10th. However, there is also the story of German Lieutenant H.G. Toma, who, after the cease fire, had disarmed his own men and was leading them across the lines when they were gunned down by American machine gunners who had not yet gotten the order to cease fire. Lt. Toma was so despondent and incensed at the senseless slaughter of his men that he shot himself. And all of this occured after the cease fire took effect. Toma’s death was said to be the inspiration for the final scene for the novel “All Quiet on the Western Front”. From the cynics view the very idea of a “Last Man” killed in a war that killed 10 million soldiers (and another 10 million civilians) may seem an exercise in futility. In fact, the last day of this war, which lasted just 11 hours, saw almost 11,000 dead, wounded and missing; more casualties than in the 24 hours of D-Day, in World War Two. Worse, as an historian has noted, “The men storming the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on November 11, 1918, lost their lives in a war that the Allies had already won. Had Marshal Foch (the Allied Supreme Commander) heeded the appeal…to stop hostilities while the talks went on, some sixty-six hundred lives would likely have been saved… So,...the men who died for nothing when they might have known long life, ‘would all be forgotten.”Well, not entirely. We all die eventually, and we are all eventually forgotten, as our bones and reputations turn to dust. But the death of twenty million should mean something greater than the sum of their individual petty lives. And in that regard those millions who died in the “…war to end all wars”, require our respect, a memory, an image to keep their memory alive. And in that regard the face of George Lawrence Price, staring out from the now distant past, does better many. His is the face of confident innocence: a confident time, familiar and distant, innocent, and yet no more innocent than your life today; George Lawrence Price was, officially, the last man killed in The Great War of 1914-1918, and as good a symbol as any of all who have died in wars meant to stop wars. God rest his soul.