The Last to Fall – World War One’s Tragic Final Casualties

Thousands of soldiers died on the very last day of the First World War. Here are some of their stories.

Thousands of soldiers died on the very last day of the First World War. Here are some of their stories.

“Of the war’s more than 22 million casualties, a staggering 11,000 were killed or wounded during that last morning of fighting.”

OF THE MILLIONS OF STORIES OF SACRIFICE AND LOSS to come out of the First World War, perhaps George Edwin Ellison’s is the most moving.

By the autumn of 1918, the native of Leeds, England was something of a legend among his squad mates: the 40-year-old career soldier was still alive and kicking after four punishing years of trench warfare. And that was no small accomplishment for a Tommy on the Western Front. After all, the British Army had been effectively wiped out and reconstituted with fresh volunteers and conscripts several times over since the start of the conflict.

As a member of the 5th Irish Lancers, Ellison fought in the BEF’s first actions in 1914 and would go on to survive the bloody slaughter at Ypres, Armentières, Loos and Cambrai. [1]

Tragically, it was on the war’s very last day that the middle-aged private’s luck finally ran out. Ninety-eight years ago today – at precisely 9:30 a.m. local time, Nov. 11, 1918 – George Edwin Ellison perished in a firefight while on patrol in western Belgium. His death came just four hours after the war-ending Armistice was signed at Compiègne; but 90 minutes before the 11 o’clock ceasefire was to go into effect.

Ironically, the ill-fated trooper fell near Mons, the site of his very first battle way back in 1914. Four years later, British generals had ordered an assault on the town knowing full well that the war’s end was at hand. They believed depriving the enemy of the ground upon which England had suffered its first defeat of the conflict was a symbolic triumph too rich to pass up. [2]

Ellison was laid to rest in a small military cemetery near the town. By a freak coincidence, his plot is adjacent to the grave of the very first British soldier to be killed in the war — A 16 year-old private from the 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment named John Parr. [3]

Gun batteries kept firing on Nov. 11 right up until the moment of the Armistice. Many crews figured they'd have fewer shells to haul to the rear that way. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Gun batteries kept firing on Nov. 11 right up until the moment of the Armistice. Many crews figured they’d have fewer shells to haul to the rear that way. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Going Out With A Bang

Sadly, Ellison wasn’t the only one to fall in the conflict’s final hours. In fact, out of the war’s more than 22 million casualties, a staggering 11,000 were killed or wounded during that last morning of fighting.

Despite the fact that commanders on both sides knew as early as 5:30 a.m. that the war would end in less than six hours, many generals ordered their troops to fight on. Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the cease-fire collapsed later, others simply wanted to land a few final blows on the enemy. [4] A number of artillery units ordered barrages that morning for no other reason than to avoid having to lug crates of unused ordnance to the rear once the guns were silent. [5]

Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon died trying to tell his comrades that lunch would served once the war was over.

Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon died trying to tell his comrades that lunch would be served once the war was over.

The Final Few

Private First Class Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon was the last Frenchman to die in action during the so-called War to End All Wars. With the cease-fire only 15 minutes away, the former shepherd and 1914 volunteer was making for the Allied lines along the Meuse River clutching what he believed was a vital communiqué. At precisely 10:45, a sniper’s bullet rang out killing the 40-year-old Trébuchon instantly. The message he carried read: “Muster at 11:30 for food.” [6] More than 90 other men from the same unit died that morning in heavy fighting. It’s unclear how many Germans perished in the action.

Just moments before 11 a.m., a 25-year-old Canadian infantryman from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan named George Price was shot dead while chasing a section of retreating Germans through the streets of the Belgian town of Ville-Sure-Haine. After briefly taking cover in a small dwelling, the young private darted out into the street in hot pursuit of the enemy and was struck in the chest by a rifle round. It was 10:58 a.m.

Henry Gunther died less than 60 seconds before the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918.

Henry Gunther died less than 60 seconds before the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918.

At almost the same moment in the Meuse Argonne sector, 230 km to the south, a 23-year-old American private named Henry Gunther was single-handedly attacking an enemy machine gun nest. The Baltimore native and son of German immigrants had been drafted into the U.S. Army a year earlier. After serving as a supply sergeant, Gunther was busted to private when a military censor reported him for criticizing the war in a letter home. Determined to win back his stripes, Gunther spent the final weeks of the conflict volunteering for dangerous duty. [7] With the war’s end just seconds away, the former bookkeeper fixed his bayonet and charged an enemy position while his comrades stayed in their foxholes. The Germans opposite the Allied lines frantically tried to wave off the advancing doughboy, but were reportedly forced to fire when the American closed to within grenade-throwing range. Henry Gunther died at 10:59 a.m. He was posthumously restored to the rank of sergeant and awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

In all, more than 4,000 Germans also became casualties in the war’s final morning. There seems to be no clear indication of which of them was the last to fall. Some speculate that it might have been a lieutenant by the name of Tomas. According to one account, the young officer was struck down in a hail of gunfire by U.S. troops several minutes after the truce while attempting a parlay. His killers were supposedly unaware that it was passed 11 a.m. [8]

Influenza patients at a stateside army base. The pandemic killed millions after the war. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Influenza patients at a stateside army base. The pandemic killed millions after the war. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Misery Without End

Sadly, for millions the unprecedented bloodletting of the First World War would only continue after Nov. 11, 1918.

Fighting would rage on in Russia between the Bolsheviks and counter revolutionary forces for another four years. A multi-national expeditionary force consisting of British, American, Canadian, French, Italian and even Japanese troops would take part in operations against the Red Army in the Far East. Another foreign campaign would take place in northern Russia.

The collapse of Germany and the polyglot Austrian-Hungarian Empire would also spark years of bloody nationalist unrest. Poland for its part would fight in five different wars with its neighbours in as many years.

Germany too would be racked with civil strife and political violence well into 1919.

The First World War was also indirectly responsible for a staggering 50 to 100 million additional deaths worldwide, thanks to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 to 1919. The deadly strain of influenza first spread through the densely packed trenches and army barracks on both sides throughout 1918. At first, news of the outbreak was suppressed by military censors out of fear that the spreading illness would sap waning wartime morale. The virus was soon ravaging whole civilian populations throughout Europe and North America leaving millions of dead in its wake. Canadian historian Andrew Price Smith theorizes that the pandemic, which hit the weak and under-fed populations of Central Europe with particular ferocity, was possibly a factor in the speedy collapse of Germany and Austria in the war’s final months [9]. Ironically, the virus became known as the Spanish Flu, not because it emanated from Spain, but rather because the government in Madrid didn’t attempt to suppress news of the disaster.

SOURCES:
http://hubpages.com/hub/World-War-One-The-Last-Morning
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/7696021.stm
http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/november_11_1918.htm

(NOTE: A previous version of this story appeared on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 11, 2013)

2 comments for “The Last to Fall – World War One’s Tragic Final Casualties

  1. 11 November, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Great article, thanks

  2. 19 November, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    My grandmother’s brother from Cavan, Thomas Smyth, was one of those killed on the Somme. His body was never found. He’s commemorated on the monument at Thiepval.

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