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