The Last Man
MYTH AND MYSTERY SURROUND CANADA’S FINAL FIRST WORLD WAR BATTLE CASUALTY.
There are conflicting reports of Canada’s last battlefield death, which came mere moments before the war ended.
Late on the morning of November 11, 1918, George Lawrence Price became the last Canadian soldier and the last Commonwealth soldier to die in battle during the First World War, cut down by enemy gunfire just moments before “the war to end all wars” officially came to a close.
It’s not a distinction anyone would seek. And, on the face of it, it is hard to see why this one death should matter more than those of the tens of thousands of Canadians who also perished in the fighting. Had he died a day or two earlier, he would be remembered, if at all, only by his descendants or as a name on a war memorial somewhere. But to die so near the end seems especially poignant. Just a few more minutes, we think, and he would have been all right. The closer you look at the story of George Lawrence Price, the more confusing it becomes: He was killed by a machine gun. No, by a sniper. He was part of a patrol. He was alone. He died instantly. He held on for ten minutes. The accounts vary so dramatically, in some cases, that it is hard to believe that they are describing the same event. Some of that confusion can be put down to the classic “haze of war”; some of it, however, seems a mixture of wishful thinking and folk myth. It’s almost as if we can’t resist the temptation to tinker with his story, to make it into a better tale somehow, or perhaps to have it serve our own ends. We don’t know a lot about Price. He was born on December 18, 1892, in Nova Scotia, one of two boys and seven girls. He headed west before the war, working variously as a brakeman for the railway and as a farm labourer.
He got in a little trouble with the law early in 1917. After public-health officials had taken away the landlady of his boarding house in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (why, exactly, the newspaper reports don’t say), Price entered her room and removed a few items — for safekeeping, he said. Appearing in court on January 15, 1917, he entered a guilty plea for theft and was sentenced to a month’s hard labour.
A photo of him taken around this time shows a pleasantlooking, dark-haired young man, a shy smile playing on his face. He gave the photo to Hazel Flocker, a girl he had been seeing in Stony Beach, Saskatchewan, where he worked on a farm.
And that is largely it — all we know of Price before the war.
Private George Lawrence Price, service number 256265, joined the Army in October 1917. Conscription had been enacted just a few months earlier, in August, and Price’s attestation sheet is the one used for those called up under the Military Services
Act, which suggests that he was drafted. However, according to Michael Boire, a history professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, that is unlikely, given that Price noted his occupation as a farm labourer and that such men were exempted at this time. He shipped out for England on January 21, 1918, arriving at Liverpool on February 6 and joining the 15th Reinforcement Battalion. He was assigned to the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, a unit originally raised in Western Canada and part of the Second Division, reaching the battalion by May 2. Price fought with the 28th for the next several months, including being gassed on September 9, 1918.
The morning of November 11 found Price and his fellow soldiers in a place called Le Roeulx, a few kilometres from Mons, the Belgian city where, in August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force had met the German Army for the first time. After more
than four years, the Allies were back where they had started. Official notification of the armistice had reached the Canadian Corps that morning. But Price’s battalion had moved off at eight o’clock, so it is quite possible that he and his comrades on the front lines had not yet heard the big news.
Not that it would have mattered one way or the other. Their orders were to push forward and then stop only when they reached the Canal du Centre. The effort may seem strange when the end of the war appeared imminent, but it was quite possible that the armistice would not hold and that, within days or even hours, the two sides would be shooting at each other once again. If that happened, the commanders wanted their men in the best possible position.
A steel lift bridge that looks in photos to be scarcely more than eighteen metres across connected Le Roeulx to Ville-surHaine, about twenty kilometres northeast of Mons. Older photos show the village as a collection of nineteenth-century brick row houses surrounded by the largely flat, if lush, farmland of this part of the Belgian countryside.
“We were to halt on the banks of this river or canal to wait for further orders.”
The words belong to Art Goodmurphy, a fellow soldier in Price’s platoon. He was interviewed by CBC TV for In Flanders Fields, an epic seventeen-part oral history the network broadcast beginning on November 11, 1964, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War. At this point, Goodmurphy was in his early sixties; in the recording, his voice is firm and his memories seem clear.
“Well, just about the time this Price, he came over to me and he said, ‘What do you think of those houses across the road there?’ Well they were brick houses with bricks knocked out that looked like a wonderful place to put a machine gun, or a rifle, or anything like that.”
Apparently, Price and Goodmurphy were worried about being caught in the exposed area by the canal, so they decided to cross over.They took three Lewis gunners with them, but rather than lugging their machine guns they crossed carrying only pistols. Goodmurphy remembered that “on a little hill or knoll off to our right we could see Germans mounting machine guns.”
When they entered the houses on the other side of the canal, they found only elderly Belgians — any German soldiers had bundled out the back door before they came in.
“And then the machine guns opened up. Oh, boy, they knocked the bricks off this house and knocked the shingles off,” Goodmurphy recalled.
Could they get back? They figured they’d better investigate “The two of us went out, and all of a sudden, bang! A gunshot came from right up the end of the street. Got him right through the back, through the heart, and he fell dead in my arms there.”
He laid Price inside the brick wall surrounding the house.
Suddenly, Goodmurphy recalled, it grew quiet. “Wait until we cross that bridge, they’ll get us then,” he remembered one of the other soldiers saying. “But we walked across the bridge. No firing. Nothing ever fired.”
Price was the lone fatality from the 28th Battalion that day. The entry in the battalion’s war diary for the day says he died from machine gun fire at 10:50 a.m. A circumstance-of-death report, filed a little later, stated that he was killed by a sniper and put the time as 10:57, later corrected to 10:58.
It’s a believable account for a layperson, but for anyone more familiar with the First World War it raises a few red flags: Where were the officers and the non-commissioned officers, who would normally make these sorts of decisions? Why leave the Lewis guns, which weren’t all that heavy (twenty-eight pounds) behind? And privates don’t normally carry pistols. So it’s all a little off.
But that’s not the only account.
From the window of the house where she was sheltering, Belgian nurse Alice Grotte saw Price’s arms fly up as the bullet hit him. She dashed into the street without concern for her own safety. Together with another soldier, she helped to get Price inside. They did all they could, but Grotte sensed that he was done for.
He lingered for a few minutes, and before he died Price reached into his pocket and handed Alice a small crocheted flower. She passed it on to her daughter, who in turn gave it to George Barkhouse, Price’s nephew, in 1991. It was a memento from Price’s fiancée, her name long since lost. Barkhouse still has it, a tangible connection to the uncle for whom he was named.
Grotte’s account first appeared in an article in the November 1968 issue of the Legionary magazine. The author, LieutenantColonel D.E. Macintyre, had served with the 28th, although on November 11 he was away from the regiment, returning only later to assume its command. In 1968, as the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice, and of Price’s death, drew near, Macintyre set out to interview as many of the surviving members of the 28th as possible about the events of November 11, along with any other eyewitnesses he could find. Grotte’s account came to him indirectly from the curator of the war museum in Mons. Perhaps Price was foolhardy?
That’s the implication of a very different version of the story, related by a businessman named W.B. Pearson in a letter he wrote to Arthur Currie in the late 1920s. Currie, the former head of the Canadian Corps, was embroiled in a lawsuit against the daily paper in Cobourg, Ontario, which had implied in print that he had been cavalier with the lives of Canadian soldiers, particularly on the last day of the war.
According to this account, Price decided to cross the bridge alone, despite having been given specific orders not to do so. He had seen a young Belgian woman standing in a doorway and for a lark decided to say hello to her. As he went to shake her hand, the Germans got him. To add a little spice to the story,
the author suggests that one of the Germans was interested in the same young woman and killed Price largely out of pique. The story is told at one remove, the author relating what he heard from Thomas Keenan, a former member of the 28th who served with the man he called “Jack” Price.
Private Percy Bradley echoed this version. In a letter he wrote to Macintyre in 1967, Bradley recalled that he and Price, already thronged by grateful Belgians even before the armistice was officially declared, decided to walk down to the canal. On a whim, Price crossed over, alone. A shot rang out, Price fell, and Bradley saw a woman charge from a house to help him.
Another story suggests that Price’s death was even more poignant. According to author Strome Galloway, writing in the December 1988-January 1989 issue of Legion magazine, Price was killed as he stopped to accept a bouquet from some grateful Belgians.
For non-experts, such a mishmash of fragmentary and contradictory accounts is baffling, almost irritating in a way — there has to be one true story, doesn’t there? But for military historians this is simply the way things are.
“Interviews are notoriously unreliable because they depend on memory,” Boire said. “I only use interviews when I have to. It’s the salt and pepper to flavour what I get from the original contemporary document.”
Not that those are necessarily more dependable. “The war diary is itself written after the fact and written by people who are far away from the action, not front-line soldiers.” Days or weeks could pass before an event was recorded, and, Boire said, commanding officers weren’t above altering a diary to show the battalion in a better light.
When it comes to separating truth from legend, Boire recommends looking at the broader context. “These are Victorian men. The desire to be a man among men propels a lot of these boys.” The 28th Battalion, too, had a reputation for being an aggressive, hard-fighting bunch. “This is their third campaign season,” said Boire. And, although Price himself was a relatively recent member of the battalion, he had been through some of the hardest fighting of the war, including the Hundred Days campaign that since August had seen the Germans pushed constantly back — with very high losses to the Allies. “He’s not a young soldier. He’s not an amateur, making amateur decisions.”
“I can see Price getting killed, I can see it,” said Boire, himself a former army officer. “I’ve had soldiers like that you had to grab by the shoulder and say, stop, get back. You’re exposing yourself. You’re exposing the rest of us.” Price, for whatever reason, took a risk. This time it didn’t pay off.
Looked at from that perspective, it’s doubtful that he crossed the bridge on a lark. But the reality is that we will never know what actually happened to George Lawrence Price, other than the fact that he was killed on the last day of the war. Macintyre says even the time of his death, 10:58 a.m., was a sort of best estimate made by the battalion’s officers after the fact.
He lies today in the military cemetery in St. Symphorien, Belgium, not far from the grave of John Parr, the first British fatality of the war, who died on August 21, 1914. The war had come full circle in a matter of metres.
The final words come from his old comrade Art Goodmurphy: “Poor old Price. He never did know that the war was over.”
Private George Lawrence Price.
Above: The 28th Northwest Battalion marches past Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden in July 1918.Below: A memorial plaque to George Lawrence Price is part of the collection at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Top: This casualty form lists George Lawrence Price’s history with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, ending on the other side with the entry “Killed in action 11/11/18.”Left: Canadian soldiers and joyful residents march through the streets of Mons, Belgium, on November 11, 1918. George Price was killed a few kilometres further east earlier that morning.
Nova Scotia resident George Barkhouse, eighty-four, looks out toward the place where his uncle George Lawrence Price was killed in Ville-sur-Haine, Belgium, mere minutes before the armistice took effect on November 11, 1918.