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 (above), which split the tiny village of Ville-sur-Haine, 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 (above) 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, those symbols of slaughter and misery, and left them 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 and see of the Huns were going to make stand to defend the canal.
With his first sight of the canal, Arthur worried if 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. A few minutes after 10:30am, Arthur stood up, and said in his round Canadian accent to the young man beside him, “Come on, George. Let’s have a look.” As one, three men stood up with Arthur, and all four began running toward the waterway.
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, the Canadians knew they had to cross the open ground before the deadly weapon could begin shooting. They dashed the hundred yards across the bridge, their hobnail 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 also hear a German machine gun firing somewhere in the village, and bullets chipping off the outside walls of the building they were in.
Arthur realized this meant the patrol had accomplished its goal. With no artillery fire falling, it had to mean the Germans were not going to put up more than a modest defence of the Central Canal. Now the patrol had to get that information back to headquarters. Time to go back. George Price led the way out the door, and Arthur followed. As they stepped into the street the machine gun fire suddenly stopped. And in that second of silence George turned as if to say something to Arthur. And a single sniper's shot rang out.
George fell forward, into Arthur’s arms. A growing crimson red stain quickly spread across George’s chest. The squad struggled to pull their comrade back inside the house. From somewhere a Belgium nurse appeared and began to tend to George. But it was to no effect.
Private George Lawrence Price - born on 15 December 1892 in the village of Falmouth, Nova Scotia, inducted 15 October, 1917 in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and served in Company "A",
Saskatchewan North West Regiment, 28th Battalion, 6th Infantry Division, Canadian Expeditionary Force - died a few moments later at 25 years of age, on the floor of small house on the east bank of the Central Canal in the village of Ville-sur-Haine, central Belgium. The elderly Lenoirs provided a blanket, which the three remaining Canadians used to carry their fallen comrade back across the canal. Strangely they had to dodge no fire on their ran back across the footbridge.
As they reached the western shore, Private Arthur Goodmurphy was surprised to be met by Captain Ross, who informed the four men 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. With his open and innocent face, George Lawrence Price, serial number 256265, was a perfect example of the absent of logic in the 67,000 Canadian sacrifices consumed 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 of the 1,737,000 Frenchman to die in this war was forty year old Private First Class Augustin-Joseph Vitorin Trebuchon, who was carrying word of the armistice to the front lines when he was gunned down just across the Meuse River in the Ardennes forest, at about 10:45 A.M. Private George Edwin Ellison, born in Leeds, England, 40 years before he was killed outside of Mons Belgium, at 9:30 that morning of 11 November, 1918. And since the village of Mons was also where the British Expeditionary Force first met the German invaders, within sight of Private Ellison's grave is that of John Henry Parr, killed on 21 August, 1941 - the first of 107,000 British dead.
The last of the 117,000 Americans killed in World War One was 23 year old Private Henry Nicolas John Gunther of Company A, "Baltimore's Own" 313th Regiment, 157th Brigade, 79th Infantry Division. He had been a Sergeant, but the death and bloody senselessness of war had embittered him, and Henry was demoted back to private after a letter home advising friends to avoid the draft, was intercepted by army censors. At 10:59am Private Henry Gunter, a German American, had charged a German machine gun in the outskirts of the town of Ville-Devant-Chaumont in the Meuse Argonne region of France. And if accurate, that timing would have made him the last man to officially die in World War One.
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 occurred the day before, on 10 November.
However, there is also the story of German Lieutenant H.G. Toma, who, after the cease fire, had disarmed his men and was leading them across the lines to surrender, when they were gunned down by American machine gunners who had not yet gotten the order to cease fire, or who just wanted to murder some more Germans. Lt. Toma was so despondent and incensed at the slaughter of his men that he shot himself. His suicide would seem to have been a poignant comment on the entire war. Toma’s death was also 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 romantic futility. In fact, the last day of this war, which lasted just 11 hours, saw almost 11,000 dead - more dead 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 6 June 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who fell on 11 November, 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 lives. And in that regard those millions who died in the “…war to end all wars”, require our respect, and an image to keep their memory alive.
And in that regard the face of George Lawrence Price (above) , staring out from the now distant past, does better many. His is the face of confident innocence: a confident time, familiar and yet distant, innocent, and yet no more innocent than your life today; George Lawrence Price who was, officially, the last Canadian killed in The Great War of 1914-1918. May God rest his soul.