The last man: Canadian WW I soldier died at 2 minutes to peace

George Lawrence Price is believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier killed in the First World War, dying just two minutes before armistice 100 years ago. His legacy is still deeply felt in the Belgian community where he died.

Pte. George Lawrence Price was killed by German sniper, never to go home again

Pte. George Lawrence Price is shown in his military uniform. (Provided by Marilyn Lahaie)

George Lawrence Price died on a Monday. It was a rainy day whose hours were almost evenly split between war and peace. And it was a terrible day to die.

That Monday marked both the end of the long suffering of the First World War, and of the Canadian private's short life. His premature death, just minutes shy of a tenuous peace, was no more or less tragic than that of countless others killed during the course of the war — or afterward, because of it.

But being the last Canadian and Commonwealth soldier to die in the war to end all wars — just as so many people were celebrating — lifted him out of almost-certain anonymity.

His death on Nov. 11, 1918, ultimately made him a symbol of the futility of conflict.

George Lawrence Price was eventually buried in St. Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons, Belgium. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

Before all that, George Price, the civilian, lived an unremarkable life.

Son of Annie and James Price, he grew up in what is now Port Williams, N.S. As a young man, he moved west, ending up for a time with Canadian Pacific Railway in Moose Jaw, Sask.

He made headlines there for an unfortunate aside: Stealing "a quantity of house effects," including dishes and linen, from his landlady. The value of the goods? A then-significant $25. He served one month in prison with hard labour.

It was also there that he joined the army. As a soldier in the 28th North West Battalion, Price served in the thick of the Canadian effort leading to the end of the war, according to Tim Cook, author and historian at the Canadian War Museum.

"He served throughout the Hundred Days campaign," said Cook, in reference to a series of successful Canadian battles in which they suffered heavy casualties.

According to his personnel record, Price was also hospitalized for a month after a gas attack in France.

The Canadian soldiers who made it to the end were "exhausted," said Cook. "They had seen their comrades, their best friends killed. They had buried them in shallow graves."

Letters sent home

Like many around him on that Monday, Price was a conscripted soldier — drafted at 24, and without a wife or children. He wrote home diligently, sending stoic and hopeful postcards to his little sister, Florence.

"Just a line to let you know I still think of you," he wrote in one. "I will see you someday."

In his letters to his mother, Price revealed he was a reluctant warrior.

"He didn't want to shoot anybody," said George Barkhouse, Price's nephew and namesake, who turned 90 last month.

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A last-minute mission

Early Monday, the Canadians had just taken the Belgian village of Havré, on the outskirts of the newly liberated Mons, a city that still today remembers both Canadians and Price for their sacrifices.

At 6:30 a.m. that Monday, the Canadian Corps received official word telling them the fighting would stop that day — an armistice that would come at 11 that morning.

Most of the units would have heard by runner or telegram by 9:30 a.m., Cook said.

"They had about two hours to know that the war would be over. And most of the officers simply said to the soldiers ... 'Find a hole in the ground and stay there. Don't expose yourself, don't endanger your life,'" he said.

"They understood that this was the end of a very long and costly war. And yet for some reason, Pte. Price was leading a small patrol to the east of Mons."

A view of the George Price Footbridge, which sits close to the spot where the Canadian private was believed to have been killed on Nov. 11, 1918. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

For Price and a handful of other soldiers, the war went on. And there are a few versions of what exactly happened with Price that morning.

According to one account, by Pte. Art Goodmurphy, Price suggested they go sweep some buildings sitting across a narrow canal in Ville-sur-Haines to look for German soldiers.

Five soldiers walked across the small bridge and arrived at one home, kicking down a door to enter. While inside, German machine guns came alive, picking at the bricks of the house.

For these German soldiers, too, the war had not yet ended.

As the Canadians ventured back out, Price was shot by a sniper. On the inside of his uniform, he was wearing a delicate flower knitted by his fiancée.

Art Goodmurphy recounts how Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was shot and died in his arms on Nov. 11, 1918 -- the last soldier of the British Empire to be killed in action in WWI. (CBC archives)

"All of a sudden — BANG. One shot came from all the way up the street. Got hit right through the back and to the heart," recalled Goodmurphy.

Various accounts mention a young woman who ran over and tried to help. They note that the lady of the house also tried to comfort Price.

But he went quickly: Price was dead — just a month shy of his 26th birthday.

'The war is over!'

Goodmurphy reported the death to his major. "The war is over! ... The war is over!" the major replied. "What the hell did you go across there for?"

George Barkhouse, Price's nephew and namesake, was given this frame during a trip to Belgium in 2014. It contained the knitted flower his uncle was wearing on the day of his death and a handwritten thank you note from a Belgian family. (Eric Woolliscroft/CBC)

By Goodmurphy's telling, Price never knew an armistice was imminent. "He was just doing his job."

A "Killed in Action" report filled out afterward records Price's death at three minutes before the armistice took hold — and ahead of the church bells that echoed across Mons.

Other accounts — including an inscription on his old headstone, now housed at a museum in Mons — say it was just two minutes before: 10:58 a.m.

Learn more about how George Price left a lasting legacy in the region where he died:

Private George Price: Paying homage to a fallen Canadian | Dispatch

5 years ago
Duration 9:55
This year's Remembrance Day marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. In this weeks Dispatch, the CBC's Nahlah Ayed travels to Belgium to bring us the story of Canadian Private George Price, the last British Empire soldier killed in the First World War.

In another version, Price had crossed the bridge to say hello to a young woman who had waved to him, perhaps for a kiss or a handshake.

"It's interesting we focus on Price and what his death means, but we don't, in fact, have a clear picture of how he died," said Cook.

But on the other side of the ocean, what was clear was that the jubilance of that Monday was short-lived for Price's family, who had joined countless others that morning, gathering at the local park to celebrate.

"The war was over and [the family were] having a real good time," said Barkhouse. "They got home and found out Uncle George had been killed. Pretty darn rough."

Buried alongside enemy soldiers

Price was eventually buried in the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, which is also the resting place for several German soldiers.

Now, 100 Remembrance Days later, a new monument is being unveiled in Price's honour in the city of Le Roeulx, across the canal from where he died, just under a footbridge also named after him. Barkhouse will be attending the ceremony with his granddaughter, Sylvia.

After a lifetime of telling the story, the pain lingers for Barkhouse, heir to the grief and love of the uncle he never knew.

Canada’s Governor General Julie Payette joins Price's nephew George Barkhouse to lay a wreath at this grave. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

On a trip to Belgium in 2014, Barkhouse also inherited an unexpected gift: That knitted flower worn by Price on the day he died. It's still stained by his blood.

The flower was given to Barkhouse by a Belgian family, who had framed it and added these words:

"Today, Nov. 11, 1918, at the exact moment where the peace was signed, you fell for us. The last victim of a terrible conflict. Thank you George Price!"

Read Pte. George Lawrence Price's war records:

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Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.