George Lawrence Price was a typical Canadian soldier in the First World War, except for the timing of his death.
He holds the sad distinction of being the last Canadian and last Commonwealth soldier to die in the meat-grinder conflict that claimed more than 60,000 Canadians in its four years.
A total of 10,000 men were killed, wounded or listed as missing from all participating armies on the last day of the war, according to historical records.
Price, a 25-year-old farm labourer before he enlisted, was struck by a single shot and killed two minutes before the 11 a.m. armistice went into effect on Nov. 11, 1918.
- The First World War, through the CBC digital archives
- The First World War: Canada Remembers
- First World War: legend and propaganda
- First World War: Canada answers the call
A native of Port Williams, N.S., he moved to Moose Jaw, Sask., as a young man and joined the army there in October 1917. He would become part of the last allied push that broke the German army.
On Nov. 11, Price was part of the Canadian advance through the outskirts of Mons in Belgium, where one of the earliest battles of the war had been fought in 1914 and where the first British soldier had been killed.
"They were clearing through the village and people in the village told them to be careful, the Germans are still here," said Maj. Jim McKillip, a historian with the Canadian Forces directorate of history and heritage. "He pushed on anyway and he got shot."
'He fell forward into my arms'
Author James McWilliams, in a 1980 Reader's Digest article entitled The Last Patrol, reported that Price and several colleagues were checking out possible German machine-gun nests in the village when the enemy opened fire. Civilians waved to the Canadians, urging them to take shelter in their home.
"George was facing me," fellow soldier Art Goodmurphy told McWilliams. "And I was saying something to him when all of a sudden BANG! He fell forward into my arms. I could have cried. It was not an accidental shot. It was a sniper from way up to the end of the street."
Price was carried to a nearby house where a nurse tended to him in vain. Goodmurphy said their captain was stunned when he got the news and kept repeating, "But the war is over. The war is over."
Goodmurphy is quoted as saying incredulously, "Over? How the hell did we know that? No one told us. It sure as hell wasn't 'over' across there."
McKillip isn't surprised that there was still action leading up to the final minutes of the war. While some have described Price's death as futile, coming as it did within minutes of the armistice, McKillip sees it as him doing his duty up to the final moment.
"You have to keep in mind at this point it's a ceasefire," the historian said. "Nobody is saying the war is over completely and this is now peace."
Advancing allied forces wanted to make sure they were in an advantageous position when the war finally stopped, he said.
"These guys were a victorious army finally defeating what had been a really pretty implacable enemy over a long period of time, " he said. "They were doing their job to the end. They had cracked the German army and they were making sure they got the most out of it.
"Is it worse to die two minutes before the end of the war than one or two days or one week or a month? At what point does it cease to be ironic?"
The Americans say one of their soldiers, Pvt. Henry Gunther, was the last to die in the war. The Baltimore native, who was of German descent, was part of a charge against surprised German troops who tried to warn the Americans off because they knew the ceasefire was approaching.
McKillip described Gunther's death as "a waste."
News of the ceasefire
"They actually attacked German troops that were not actively doing anything. They were just kind of sitting there, waiting out the clock.
"The Americans decided to attack the Germans and he was killed in the attack."
McKillip said there are accounts that the Germans called out to the Americans, waved at them and even fired a burst from a machine-gun into the air to get them to back off, only shooting at the U.S. troops when they began to shoot at the Germans.
At least one country has little interest in identifying its last soldier to die on the day of the armistice. Even though France lost troops on the last day of the war, it backdated all records of the deaths to Nov. 10.
Some accounts say that the French did this because they wanted to avoid any scandal when people saw so many died on the final day of the conflict but McKillip doubts that. He attributes it to the French bureaucracy.
"The reason they gave was it was administratively sound," he said. "It was the last full day of fighting and there was nothing particularly egregious about guys reported dead one day before they died."
McKillip pointed out that often soldiers were listed as having fatal wounds on one day but not expiring until a few days later, for example. He added that there was also a swath of deaths from influenza, which finished off soldiers already weakened by their wounds.
Looking to the big picture of the war, McKillip agreed Price's death was tragic but perspective is needed.
"It was in the manner of his comrades over the last four years and the timing has a poetic, maybe even dramatic irony," he said of Price's demise. "In the greater scheme of things, his act is not really of a different kind than the other 63,000 guys who got killed and the 175,000-odd wounded."