World War One ended on 11th November 1918. Of the war’s forty million casualties, a staggering 11,000 of them occurred on the final morning of the fighting. The US Marines alone sustained 10% of that number, sustaining 1,100 casualties.
When the German peace delegation arrived at Compiegne Forest to negotiate the terms for an armistice on 8th November, they found that the Allies were in no mood to negotiate. The Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, believed that there was no reason to negotiate and that the Germans should sign anything that was put in front of them. In this, Foch was ironically supported by the German government; the situation in Germany was such that the government feared civil unrest due to chronic food shortages caused by the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports. The government ordered the delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, to sign whatever was placed in front of him. At 05:10 AM, he signed the thirty-four terms of the armistice, as harsh as he may have believed them to be.
The war would officially cease at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Even though the commanders on both sides knew as early as 05:30 AM that the war would end in less than six hours, many of the generals ordered their troops to continue fighting. Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the armistice collapsed, and the fighting resumed. Other leaders simply wanted to land a few final blows on the enemy. Some artillery units ordered final barrages for no other reason than to avoid having to haul crates of unused ammunition to the rear once the guns fell silent.
One example of the determination of the Allies to maintain pressure on the Germans until the very last moment, whilst also strictly adhering to the Armistice terms, was Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railway guns. It fired its last shot of the war at 10:57:30 AM from the Verdun area. The gun crew had timed it so that the shell would land far behind the German front line only seconds before the scheduled Armistice.
George Edwin Ellison
Of the millions of heart-rending stories of sacrifice and loss to come from the Great War, perhaps that of the last British soldier killed during the fighting, Private George Edwin Ellis is the most moving.
By the autumn of 1918, Ellison of Leeds, England had become something of a legend amongst his squad. The 40-year-old career soldier was still alive and kicking after four gruelling years of trench warfare; this was practically unheard of. This was no small feat for a British Tommy on the Western Front. The British army had effectively been wiped out and reconstituted with fresh volunteers and conscripts several times over since the beginning of the conflict.
Ellison had fought in the British Expeditionary Force’s first actions in 1914 and would go onto surveive the bloody slaughter of the Battles of: Mons; First Battle of Ypres; Armentières; La Bassée; Loos; and Cambrai.
Tragically, it was on the very final day of fighting that the veteran’s luck finally ran out. At 09:30 AM George Edwin Ellison was shot dead in a firefight while on patrol in western Belgium. His death came only four hours after the war-ending Armistice was signed but ninety minutes before the 11:00 AM ceasefire was to take effect.
Ironically, the ill-fated soldier fell near Mons, the site of his very first battle four years and three months earlier. The British generals had ordered an assault on the town knowing full well that the war’s end was at hand. They believed that depriving the enemy of the ground upon which Britain had suffered its first defeat of the war was a symbolic victory too great to pass up. Donkeys leading lions, indeed.
Private George Edwin Ellison was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the town of Mons. By a strange coincidence, his plot faces the grave of the very first British soldier killed in the war – 17-year-old Private John Parr. The fact that the first soldier and the last soldier killed in the war lie facing one another shows the futility of the whole conflict and is a tragic example of the stalemate nature of the Great War.
Private First Class Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon was the final Frenchman to be killed in action during World War One. With the Armistice only fifteen minutes away, the former shepherd was making for the Allied lines along the Meuse River clutching what he believed to be a vital communiqué. At 10:45 AM, a sniper’s bullet found its mark, killing the 40-year-old Trébuchon instantly. This important message that he carried called for his comrades to muster for hot soup at 11:30 AM.
The French Army was embarrassed that it had sent men into battle after the Armistice had been signed. In their embarrassment, the French government recorded the deaths of all their soldiers on 11th November as occurring on 10th November.
Trébuchon was the last of 91 Frenchmen killed that morning on his part of the front.
The final man to fall from the British Empire was 25-year-old Private George Lawrence Price. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Price moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan as a young man. He was conscripted in Moose Jaw in October 1917.
On the morning of 11th November 1918, Price’s battalion had driven the enemy across the bank of a canal in the Belgian village of Ville-Sure-Haine and at 09:00 AM they learned that the fighting would end. Acting on their own initiative, Price and a small group of soldiers crossed the canal to clear the houses on the opposite bank from the battalion. The group discovered a German machine gun crew who opened fire on them, but they took cover behind a wall. The Germans, aware that they had been outflanked, began to retreat. Private Price darted out onto the road in pursuit of the enemy and was struck in the chest by a rifle round. It was 10:58 AM.
At almost the same moment as George Price fell, 230 Km to the south in the Meuse Argonne sector, a 23-year-old American private named Henry Gunther was single-handedly charging a machine gun nest.
The Baltimore native and son of German immigrants had been drafted into the US Army in September 1917. After serving as a supply sergeant, Gunther was busted down to private when a military censor reported him for criticizing the war in a letter home. Determined to win his stripes back, Gunther spent the final weeks of the war volunteering for dangerous assignments. With the war’s end just seconds away, the former bookkeeper fixed his bayonet and charged towards an enemy position as his comrades stayed in their foxholes. The Germans, realising that peace was imminent, frantically attempted to wave the American off but when he was within grenade-throwing range they were forced to open fire. Henry Gunther died at 10:59 AM. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the US military’s second highest award for valour, and restored to the rank of sergeant.
Information about the German casualties is more difficult to ascertain. In all, there were more than 4,000 German casualties in the war’s final morning. There seems to be no clear indication of which of them was the last to fall but some speculate that it may have been a junior officer called Tomas. According to one account, the young officer was struck down in a hail of gunfire by US troops several minutes after the truce while attempting to surrender the house he and his men were in the process of vacating. His killers were supposedly unaware that it was after 11:00 AM when he approached them.
The War to End All, Oh Wait!
Sadly, for millions, the unprecedented bloodletting of the First World War would continue long after November 1918.
Fighting would rage on in Russia between the Bolsheviks and counter revolutionary forces for another four years in the Russian Civil War. A multi-national expeditionary force consisting of British, American, French, Canadian, Italian and even Japanese forces formed part of the White Army which fought against the Red Army of the Bolsheviks.
The collapse of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked years of bloody nationalist unrest. The newly reformed country of Poland, for its part, would fight in five different wars with its neighbours in as many years.
Germany, too, was racked with civil unrest and political violence well into 1919.
Although the fighting stopped in November 1918, the First World War did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919. The treaty imposed such harsh and crippling terms on the vanquished Germans that it allowed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis) to take advantage of discontent in the country and eventually seize power. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch actually believed that the Treaty did not go nearly far enough and predicted that, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” He was off by sixty-five days.
The Rest is History