The Last Man

MYTH AND MYS­TERY SUR­ROUND CANADA’S FI­NAL FIRST WORLD WAR BAT­TLE CA­SU­ALTY.

Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Ian Coutts

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.

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