Monday, November 10, 2008

An Eyewitness Account

The events surrounding the death of Private George Lawrence Price are recorded in the transcripts of the interviews published by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in thier production "Flanders' Fields: Canadian Voices from Vimy". The original 1965 production was aired on the radio and released in a series of vinyl LPs, some of which we have been able to secure at the CEFSG. The original production was narrated, directed and produced by J. Frank Willis, with planning and research by A. E. Powley, and consultation from Colonel G. W. L. Nicholson who authored the "Official History of the Canadian Army in the First World War".

In episode 16 "Victory" the following eye witness account is given: (Art Goodmurphy #105410, 28th Battalion)

Major Ross, the one of our officer’s there, told us that we were to halt on the bank of this river, or canal, to await for further orders. Well just about this time, this Price, he came over to me and said “What do you think of those houses across the road there?”. Well there were brick houses, facing us, with bricks knocked out, that looked like a wonderful spot to stick a machine gun out of you know, or a rifle or any thing like that. So I said “I don’t like the look of it. All of us on this road here, we’re just sitting ducks.”.He said “You know, I think we should go across that road and see what is in those houses.”. So I said “fine.” So he said “Let’s get a couple of guys and go across there.” So we got three other machine gunners, and uh, we went across. Well when we got to the bridge, on a little knoll or hill off to our right we could see Germans mounting machine guns. No doubt about that they were mounting machine guns there. How many we didn’t know, but we walked across this steel bridge and all we found in these houses were old Belgium people. And then the machine guns opened up. Oh boy! They knocked bricks this house and knocked shingles off and hit this bridge we had come across. It looked like an emery wheel the way the bullets were ricocheting off that steel, you know. But these were brick houses you know, they never ????, you know. There was a brick fence, ran around this first house, so Price said “Let’s go outside and see what’s going on outside there”. So the two of us went outside. All of a sudden – Bang! One shot came from way up the end of the street there. Got him right through the back, and through the heart, and he fell dead right in my arms there. It was not an accidental shot, it was a sniper like you know. If there was two there they’d have got both of us. And I leaned down behind the fence there and went in and got the other boys and told them that he was killed, you know. What’s the matter, there was not a sound, there’s suppose to be machine guns firing, everything is quiet. One said “Wait ‘til we start across that bridge they’ll get us then.” But we walked the bridge, no firing, nothing ever fired. And I went right up to Major Ross and told him that Price was killed. Oh Jees did he blow a fuse. “The War is over” he said, “The war is over”. I said “Well I can’t help that”. He said “What the hell did you go across there for? We had no orders to go across there.” I said “We went across to look what was in those brick houses over there. They looked like good spots for someone to pick us off there.” “Hell of a ? to think that would happen right when the war is over.” We never even thought about the war being over then, you know. And poor old Price he never even knew that it was over, you know. He was just doing his job. We didn’t always get orders to do everything that we did.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Sun Media Story: November 9, 2008


In November 2008, the CEFSG Matrix was contacted by Kathleen Harris regarding information on the Canada's last soldier killed in the Great War. As it turned out, Kathleen wanted more than just the story, she wanted quotable comments by way of a telephone interview. We can presume she found the CEFSG through this blog site. I suggested that the best person to give her the "voice" she needed was Tim Cook at the Canadian War Museum. Tim agreed to do the interview and the results are now in the text.

I do note that some of the facts do not agree with what was found from previous research. You will see the slight differences in the blog postings that follow.

Richard Laughton
November 9, 2008


Canada's last man to fall Private George Lawrence Price died minutes before the end of WW1, waving to a pretty face

OTTAWA -- He was the last man to fall in what was supposed to be the "War to End All Wars."
Across Europe, civilians were already rejoicing a ceasefire to the bloody conflict as Allied soldiers still stuck in the trenches kept on the heels of retreating enemy troops. Canadian Pte. George Lawrence Price was positioned firmly on the front line as moments counted down toward precious peace.

According to one historian, he rose just briefly to greet the wave of a woman he spotted above. And at 10:58 a.m. -- just two minutes before Armistice was officially signed at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918 -- the 25-year-old farm labourer was shot in the right chest by a German sniper near the Belgian city of Mons.

At that moment, Price earned the "grim distinction" as the last known Canadian -- and likely the last Allied soldier -- to die in combat in the First World War.

"He epitomized the sadness, the waste of the Great War and certainly the casualties," says Tim Cook, an author and World War One historian at the Canadian War Museum.

Cook said word had already gone out that Armistice would come in to effect at 11 a.m., but it took some time to reach front-line units like the one Price was in.

"He had been told stay down and for whatever reason -- was he looking to steal a first kiss or a last kiss, or to time it with the Armistice to have a story to tell his grandkids? Who knows," he said. "And then, the war ends."

While his story and name are not well known, Price is a poignant symbol of the mind-boggling blood loss and sacrifice Canadians will honour this week by pinning poppies on lapels and attending solemn ceremonies at cenotaphs. Remembrance Day carries special significance this year as it marks the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War, and Canadians will pay tribute to the war dead of distant generations in past and modern-day conflict in Afghanistan.
It will be a day of celebration of victory and sad tribute to the fallen -- much like Nov. 11, 1918 itself.

Wild cheers of celebration erupted in London and other cities at the war's end that day, but stunned silence prevailed at the front lines. Men stumbled in awe or stood frozen in tears among a sea of bodies that were their fallen comrades.

"Among the combat soldiers there was almost disbelief that this horrendous event was over," Cook said.

Canada had entered the war as a British colony and emerged as a definable, self-governing dominion that had proven itself as an international player and viable military force. Troops, most of them civilians, returned home to pick up their lives and rebuild the country, some with post-war shock or permanent disabilities. They returned with a new sense of the Canadian identity, though many soon became disillusioned and were forced to face a great depression, the rise of fascism, and ultimately, another new world war.

In all, some 620,000 Canadian troops served in the First World War, and some 60,000 never returned. Still regarded as Canada's "coming of age," it took an enormous human toll on the battlefields and the home front.

Steve Harris, chief military historian with the Department of National Defence, said the passage of 90 years has led the critical chapter in Canada's history to become an "orchestrated memory" learned and re-lived through commemoration and history books.

"The events like the re-dedication of the Vimy memorial or the Passchendaele movie will bring it back in to focus, but whatever Canadians now think about it is very much orchestrated by these well-defined events," he said.

Harris said there has been a "resurgence of remembrance" in recent years, prompted in part because Canadians draw a contemporary link with casualties in Afghanistan, and in part because there is an acute awareness of the dwindling number of Second World and even Korean war veterans.

Only one Canadian veteran of the First World War survives today -- 108-year-old John Babcock.

There is also special significance in the fact that 90 years after Armistice, Canada is back at war.
"I'm not sure any war can end all wars. The assumption was that it was so costly that no rational actor could produce like circumstances again; that they would draw back," Harris said. "Not every world leader is a rational actor. The expectation that the misery of these four years of war would keep other people from being stupid, erratic, emotional or whatever, fell through."
Just a stone's throw from where Price was killed, a monument stands today as tribute, erected by a small group of comrades 50 years after his death.

The bilingual plaque reads: "To the memory of Private George Lawrence Price 256265 of the 28th North West Battalion, 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 2nd Canadian Division, killed in action near this spot at 10.58 hours, November 11th, 1918, the last Canadian soldier to die on the Western Front in the First World War. Erected by his comrades, November 11th, 1968."
It is within half a mile of where the first casualty of the First World War was killed, a Briton who died in August 1914. Ironically, they are buried in the same cemetery, along with some German soldiers.

"For some people who are truly cynical, it basically says the first world war was four years spent fighting over half a mile," Harris said.

For a while, Price became a symbol in the anti-war sentiment that followed Armistice, of senseless death in a futile war. He was central in a 1928 libel trial over an article published in a Port Hope newspaper that suggested Gen. Arthur Currie unnecessarily sacrificed lives by sending them in to advance on the Germans when ceasefire was imminent.

After the lost legal case, Price lost a prominent place in Canadian history. But despite the drama and historic value attached to his death, Harris said placing individual significance on one soldier's death may not be deserved.

"Somebody who died 15 minutes later because of wounds suffered on Nov. 6 is no less dead, and his sacrifice no less great," he said.

A special tribute to Price will take place in Mons this Remembrance Day, and here in Canada his memory will also be honoured in a historical display. Saskatchewan Military Museum Curator Keith Inches sees Price's story as one of ironic tragedy; the native of Nova Scotia had been working as a farm labourer near Moose Jaw and his widow employer didn't pay him the wages owed.

He took bedding in lieu of payment, and she pressed theft charges. "The judge said go to jail or join the army," Inches said.

Price enlisted in 1917 and joined the legions who never came back. According to research conducted by the museum, he was among a small group of Canadians who entered a series of houses where German fire had been heard just minutes before.

After searching the second home, a single shot rang out, hitting Price in the chest.
"He's not necessarily a heroic figure. If anything, it's tragic -- or maybe you can look at it as a good thing because there weren't any after him -- at least in that war," Inches said.
Canada's First World War legacy of bravery, battle, blood and loss continues today.
"It was not the War to End All Wars," said Cliff Chadderton, a Second World War veteran and chairman of the National Council of Veteran Association.

"Those men who fought in terrible conditions and helped give Canada its identity came back to be thrown into depression and then forced to watch their sons and daughters go off to war. I would hope we might find rising out of the 90th anniversary an even greater respect for them all. And the soldiers in Afghanistan are showing tremendous courage."
- Born Dec. 15, 1892 in Kings County, Nova Scotia
- Moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan as a young man to work on the fall harvest
- Enlisted in the 210th Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force on Oct. 15, 1917 and received basic training in Regina before he was posted overseas
- Transferred to the 15th Canadian Reserve Battalion on Feb. 6, 1918 and to the 28th Canadian Infantry Battalion May 1, 1918
- He was gassed on Sept. 8, 1918 in the Canal-du-Nord area, sent for treatment then returned to his unit on Sept. 26, 1918
- Killed in action 10:58, Nov. 11, 1918, the last Allied forces fatality of the First World War
- Buried at the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Belgium
- Posthumously awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Last Canadian Killed in WW1

It has been reported that George Lawrence Price was the last Canadian Soldier killed in the Great War. It seems fitting therefore, that we should commemorate him with a blog to record his beginnings as well as his final moments. I am sure that all our CEFSG members will assist in collecting this information so that it can be recorded here.

George Price did not volunteer to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, rather he was drafted under the "1917 Military Service Act". You can see his papers here on the Library and Archives Canada site:

George Lawrence Price

His papers say the he was born in Kings County, Nova Scotia on December 15, 1892. At the time that he was drafted he was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He was single and a farm laborer. At 24 years of age, he had done well to avoid service.

The regimental number of 256265 could have fallen into either the 210th Battalion in Military District #10 or the 1st Depot Battalion in Military District #12. His papers help us out on that issue, as they clearly state he was M.D. #12 an the 1st Depot Saskatchewan Battalion.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission reports (see link) his date of death on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918 and his burial in the St. Symphorien Military Cemetery. The CWGC site also reports that he was the son of James E. and Annie R. Price of Port Williams, Kings Co., Nova Scotia, that he is believed to be the last Canadian battle casualty of the war, and that he was originally buried in Havre Old Communal Cemetery (Mons, Belgium).

George Price is remembered on the Veterans Affairs Canada Site where they have a photo of his grave marker, which is helpful as it shows him as serving with the 28th Infantry Battalion. The 28th was in the 6th Infantry Brigade of the 2nd Canadian Division.

Nicholson's text records the actions of the 28th Battalion in "Chapter XIV - Through the Hindenburg Line to Cambrai", however that is for October 1918, a month prior to the death of George Lawrence Price.

Notice of the Armistice is recorded in the War Diary of the 28th Battalion for that date. There is no record of any action relating directly to Private Price. The War Diary does refer to the Appendices, but it is difficult to interpret the number. Appendix 7 provides a narrative of the actions of the 28th Battalion from November 8th to November 11th, 1918. As luck would have it, which we seldom find in the War Diaries, the next page reports on the "Death of Private Price", as follows:

"Casualties: The Battalion suffered on this operation one casualty only Pte. Price of "A" Company being killed by an enemy machine gunner at 10:50 hours.


We now move forward to September 24, 2007 when Bob Richardson brought to our attention the article written by Jim McWilliams entitled "The Last Patrol". This has been kindly released by Jim for the CEFSG on the condition that it is not to be republished for commercial use.

Paul Reed was also kind enough to give us the coordinates for his place of death, which we have now place on Google Earth. This file will open with that information, if you are registered (free) with Google Earth:

The Last Canadian Killed - G. L. Price: On Google Earth

James McWilliams

Half a mile behind him, the village of Havre, east of Mons, was in joyous tumult as Belgian villagers welcomed their liberators, A Company of the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Corps. Private Goodmurphy had abandoned the festivities to do his own reconnaissance of the suspicious-looking hamlet across the Canal du Centre. His platoon had been told by Captain ‘Blondie” Ross to halt on the west bank of the canal. But the west side was devoid of cover, and Goodmurphy had spotted loop-holes in the top level of the brick house closest to the bridge. When the advance resumed it would be over this bridge the 28th would cross. The house offered a perfect position for German machine-guns to sweep the bridge and its approaches.

Art Goodmurphy, a former glazier from Regina, was a veteran despite his twenty-one years. He had been through a lot with the 28th -- the Somme in 1916, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele in 1917, and already this year -- Amiens, the D-Q Line, Canal du Nord and Cambrai. Now at last the Allies were on the move, pushing the Germans steadily eastward. Casualties had been a lot lighter over the last ten days. It looked like the end of the war was near, but it didn’t pay to get confident. Yesterday a shell had ploughed into the ground beside Goodmurphy and four of his chums. They should have been goners, but it failed to explode. Then there was Private Coughler, killed just a few days ago. Now there was this suspicious bridge. If anything looked like a trap this was it.

Goodmurphy rose cautiously to his feet. All remained silent except for the distant rejoicing. He advanced along the road towards the ominous bridge crouching like a gigantic iron grass-hopper over the canal. So intent was he upon the dark loop-holes that he jumped when a soft voice called from beside him, “Murph, where you going?”

It was Private Price, an A Company runner, crouched behind a shrub. George Price was a native of Port Williams, Nova Scotia. One of very few Maritimers in the Saskatchewan battalion, he had been working on a farm near Stony Beach when he walked into Moose Jaw to enlist. “Looks suspicious to me,” said Price. “I think we should go across there and see what‘s in those houses. Let’s get a couple more guys to go over with us.”

Within minutes they had found three more ’Norwesters’ to make the recce. All were Privates and Lewis-gunners, but as no one wanted to lug the heavy weapons on a reconnaisance patrol, each was armed only with a pistol. If any had thought to look at their watches, they would have discovered it was almost eleven o’clock on the most important day of their lives -- 11 November, 1918.

At 05.00 that morning, in a railway car on a siding in the Forest of Compiegne, the German and Allied delegations had signed the documents arranging the Armistice. All fighting would cease in six hours -- at 11.00. An hour and a half after the signing, at 06.30, Canadian Corps Headquarters had received the news. From there it had been dispersed to the four divisions, then to the twelve brigades, then down to the forty-eight battalions and support units. From battalion headquarters it had became more difficult to disseminate the glad tidings. The last weeks’ rapid pursuit meant that numerous platoons, sections and even individuals, were scattered over a wide area, all isolated and hard to find as they slipped stealthily forward along country lanes, through woods, and across fields devoid of cover.

The foremost unit was the 28th Northwest Battalion, advancing south of Mons against increasing enemy fire. It had been 09.30 while clearing the Bois la Haut that Headquarters of the 28th had received Marshal Foch’s communiqué accompanied by this terse addendum:

“Attacking battalions ordered to push on with all possible speed in order to gain as much territory as possible before 11.00 hours.”

An officer astride a captured horse was sent to notify the platoons stretched along the line of advance. In Havre the word had arrived around 10.30. “The street was plugged with people shouting, ‘Germans kaput!’ We reached a corner with five roads and a big building marked with bullets and shrapnel from 1914 when a staff officer appeared and said there was going to be an armistice,” recalled Dick Herrod of Moose Jaw. “‘What the hell’s an armistice,’ we asked after he was gone. Then word came from somewhere to ’Give ’em hell till eleven o’clock.”

Meanwhile half a mile ahead, the five privates, alert and watchful, were advancing on the ominous bridge. They had just reached the west bank of the canal when they spotted a German machine-gun crew setting up on a knoll on the far side, but to the right of the houses. Without a moment’s hesitation they all dashed across the bridge into the hamlet of Ville-sur-Haine. Except for the loop-holes in the nearest of the two adjoining houses, all appeared serene.

“We ran up to this first brick house, kicked the door open, and went in just like gangsters with our pistols drawn,” recalled Art Goodmurphy. Waiting for them were the inhabitants, Monsieur Stievenart and his six-year-old son, Omer -- alone. “Les allemandes sont alles,” they announced, their faces beaming. Upstairs, the Canadians found beside the loop-holes, a litter of tools and spent casings.

Years later Omer Stievenart recalled, “About 10.30 the Germans suddenly ran down stairs, left their tools and ran away, not by the front door, but by the rear. My father and Monsieur Lenoir (who lived next door) surprised at the unexpected flight, looked toward the bridge and distinctly saw soldiers in khaki uniforms -- just like the British in 1914.” Thus Ville-sur-Haine had its first glimpse of its liberators.

In the adjacent house the Canadians discovered only an elderly couple, the Lenoirs. After searching that house, they gratefully accepted celebratory refreshments. No sooner had they taken glasses in hand when German machine-guns opened up from the knoll behind the houses. Bullets knocked tiles from the rear roofs and pock-marked the solid brick walls. Price and Goodmurphy stepped into the street, sheltered by the houses, to check on the bridge. “It looked like an emery wheel the way the bullets were ricocheting off that iron-work. There was no way anybody could cross that bridge now.” The Canadians gathered in the Stievenarts’ house on the corner to plan their next step.

At that moment, five minutes before eleven, these five young Canadian privates were the tip of the entire Allied advance. They knew nothing of that, nor that the rest of the world was going mad with joy at the impending cease-fire. They just knew their recce patrol had sprung the suspected trap, and they were stuck on the wrong side of the canal. Because there were no windows overlooking the canal, Price and Goodmurphy decided to have another look at their escape route while the enemy blasted away at the back wall of the house. Maybe they had quit firing upon the bridge.

Lifting the latch, the two stepped out onto the cobbled street. The bridge was still under heavy fire, with ricochets whining in all directions. Then they sighted a lone German soldier. “He was down in the canal creeping along the edge of the water. He was ducking down, but he didn’t know we were there.” Price and Goodmurphy looked at one another, but neither moved to shoot him. “Hell, he was just trying to get out of there, back to his own people.”

By now more of the 28th had arrived on the far bank of the canal and taken what little cover they could find. From there they watched the final scene unfold. Even closer, across the street, was another eye-witness, Mademoiselle Alice Grotte, a twenty-three year-old nurse with dark, flashing eyes. She saw the two young Canadians step into the street, while the elderly Lenoirs beckoned wildly for them to come back inside.

“George was facing me,” recalled Art Goodmurphy, “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 the end of the street.”

Alice Grotte darted into the street heedless of the sniper as Goodmurphy dragged his comrade to shelter behind a brick wall. Together they carried him into the end house. Everyone tried to help. Madame Lenoir tried to feed the wounded man broth; the nurse, Alice Grotte, made Price as comfortable as possible. She recognized that he was mortally wounded. Within a minute or two Private George Lawrence Price was dead, the last battlefield casualty of The Great War, the War To End All Wars.

All at once the machine-guns stopped their savage chatter. No rifle shots sounded. In the distance church bells rang. The four Canadians decided to chance re-crossing the bridge carrying their comrade’s body. In silence they crossed while from the distance came sounds of jubilation. On the far side they met Captain Ross and told him what had happened.

“But the war is over. The war is over,” the shocked Captain kept repeating.

“Over?” exclaimed Goodmurphy incredulously. “Over? How the hell did we know that? No one told us. It sure as hell wasn’t ‘over’ across there!”

The villagers of Ville-sur-Haine pleaded to be allowed to provide a coffin and bury their fallen hero, but Price was buried in the nearby cemetery of St. Symphorien. Like every Canadian soldier killed in action, he was laid to rest wrapped in a blanket. By one of those ironies of war, the last casualty was buried beside the British soldiers killed near Mons during the first battle of the war.

George Price’s comrades met again fifty years later, on 11 November, 1968, to erect a monument to his memory on the spot where he died. With them to unveil the plaque on the wall of the Stievenart’s house was the last commanding officer of the 28th ‘Norwesters’. Also present was the girl with the dark, flashing eyes who fifty years earlier had tried to save the life of Private Price, the last casualty of The War To End All Wars. The plaque states in both English and French:



Today the bridge still crouches like a gigantic iron grass-hopper, but it is dwarfed by the larger structure that spans the modern and wider Canal du Centre. Upon crossing the two bridges to Ville-sur-Haine one can no longer find the Stievenarts’ house on the corner, nor the house from which Alice Grotte ran to his aid. Both became victims of Progress when the canal was widened. However, just ask anyone in the hamlet and they will tell you the story of Private George Price and take you to the monument constructed from the bricks of the Stievenarts’ corner house. On it you will find the plaque unveiled by his comrades on Remembrance Day, 1968.

Just days after the Armistice there were already many variations of the story of Private George Price’s last morning. Most of these came from comrades who watched the climactic last moments from across the Canal du Centre. In the years since many have attempted to interpret Price’s thoughts and actions. This account was taken from the author’s personal interviews with Art Goodmurphy and Dick Herrod in 1979 and 1980