BBC News


Page last updated at 10:41 GMT, Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The last soldiers to die in World War I

Pte George Ellison
Private George Ellison, the last British soldier to die

By John Hayes-Fisher
Producer, Timewatch

In the closing minutes of World War I, the ceasefire within touching distance, a handful of troops died. As the 90th anniversary of the Armistice approaches, who were these men?

Just after 5 o'clock on the morning of 11 November, 1918, British, French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of Paris and signed a document which would in effect bring to an end World War I.

Within minutes, news of the Armistice - the cease fire - had been flashed around the world that the war, which was meant to "end all wars", was finally over.

And yet it wasn't, because the cease-fire would not come into effect for a further six hours - at 11am - so troops on the frontline would be sure of getting the news that the fighting had stopped.

That day many hundreds died, and thousands more injured.

Timewatch: The Last Day of World War I, is on BBC Two at 2015 GMT on Saturday 1 November
Or catch up later with the BBC iPlayer

The respected American author Joseph E Persico has calculated a shocking figure that the final day of WWI would produce nearly 11,000 casualties, more than those killed, wounded or missing on D-Day, when Allied forces landed en masse on the shores of occupied France almost 27 years later.

What is worse is that hundreds of these soldiers would lose their lives thrown into action by generals who knew that the Armistice had already been signed.

The recklessness of General Wright, of the 89th American Division, is a case in point.

Seeing his troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves.

"That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason," says Mr Persico.

Final fallen

So who were the last to die?

New research by the BBC's Timewatch tells the story of some of the last to fall in WWI.

The final British soldier to be killed in action was Private George Edwin Ellison. At 9.30am Pte Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers was scouting on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons where German soldiers had been reported in a wood.

Michael Palin looks over Private Ellison's war record

Aged 40, Pte Ellison was not the typical conscript, says military historian Paul Reed.

"He was a pre-war regular soldier; we can tell this by his number (L /12643) which is consistent with a man who enlisted in the early years of the 20th Century. He may even have been a Boer war veteran, considering his age."

It must have been odd for Pte Ellison to be back in Mons again. This is where his war started four years earlier when he was part of the British Expeditionary Force retreating from Mons in August 1914, just weeks after the outbreak of the war.

"During his four years at the front, George saw every type of warfare," says Mr Reed.

"He went into the first trenches as the war became deadlocked. He fought in the first gas attack, and on the Somme in 1916, watched the first ever tanks go up to the front."

Almost a million British soldiers had been killed in those intervening years, yet almost miraculously Pte Ellison had so far escaped uninjured. In just over an hour the ceasefire would come into force, the war would be over and Pte Ellison, a former coal miner, would return to the terraced street in Leeds to see his wife Hannah and their four-year-old son James.

Poppies on Remembrance Day
Remembering the fallen

And then the shot rang out. George was dead - the last British soldier to be killed in action in WWI.

Although the last British soldier to die, Pte Ellison would not be the last to be killed that morning. As the minutes ticked towards the 11 o'clock ceasefire, more soldiers would fall.

At 10.45 another 40-year-old soldier, Frenchman Augustin Trebuchon, was taking a message to troops by the River Meuse saying that soup would be served at 11.30 after the peace, when he too was killed.

Astonished enemy

Augustin Trebuchon's grave - along with all those French soldiers killed on 11 November 1918 - is marked 10/11/18. It is said that after the war France was so ashamed that men would die on the final day that they had all the graves backdated.

Just minutes before 11am, to the north around Mons, the 25-year-old Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was on the trail of retreating German soldiers.

It was street fighting. Pte Price had just entered a cottage as the Germans left through the back. On emerging into the street he was struck by the bullet which killed him.

But Pte Price's death at 10.58 was not the last. Further south in the Argonne region of France, US soldier Henry Gunther was involved in a final charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to occur. What could they do? He too was shot.

The Baltimore Private - ironically of German descent - was dead. It was 10.59 and Henry Gunther is now recognised as the last soldier to be killed in action in WWI.

Ninety years later, George Ellison's granddaughters Catherine and Marie make an emotional first visit to the cemetery where their grandfather lies.


Pte Ellison's granddaughters visit his grave for the first time

Catherine knows he died just five days short of her own father's (George's only son James) 5th birthday. "It must have been terrible for my grandma" she says.

It's the first time anyone from the family has seen George's grave. As the two sisters lay white lilies beneath their grandfather's headstone, Marie echoes what many families in Britain today still feel about those who gave their lives in that war.

"We are very proud."

Below is a selection of your comments.

My father was the doctor serving with the 2nd Kings African Rifles in the bush on the Mozambique border on 11/11/18. It took three days for the armistice message to get through (via the Germans) and there were several serious skirmishes in the meanwhile killing a British officer and several askaris.
Antony Murphy, Birmingham

My gratitude is extended to all those brave men and women who gave their lives so that we can live in relative peace. However, does it really matter that soldiers were killed one minute before or after the end of the war? Surely what matters is that from the first to the last soldier to be killed in any conflict is a waste of life. All politicians who engage in war should be arrested and jailed for crimes against humanity.
David Small, Pendlebury, Manchester

My grandfather survived WWI serving as a volunteer in the Royal Artillery. Subsequently, alert to the threat that Hitler posed, he joined the territorials. When WWII broke out, I understand that he suffered a breakdown brought on by memories of what he'd experienced in the first war. His death certificate says he died of pneumonia in hospital, in 1943.
Mark, London

Many also fell after the armistice, news of this agreement to cease hostilities took time to reach to the frontline in the far reaches. My great grandfather was killed in Palestine after the 11/11/1918 armistice. I'm sure he was not alone, sad but true.
Matthew, Swindon

Matthew, my grandfather was a Lewis gunner in the Machine Gun Corps; initially on the Western Front but then in Palestine. I recall him telling me, during my childhood, that he fought on for several days after 11/11/18 and that British soldiers were killed beyond Armistice Day.
David, Douglas

This is a tragic tale but let's also remember those who died in the years after the end of WWI whilst clearing the battlefields of the Western Front. There are many war graves to be found that are dated post 1918, many of them are Royal Engineers who were killed by unexploded ordinance.
Simon Kirby, Melbourn, Cambridgeshire

In the same cemetery as Pte Ellison's grave are also the graves of the first British soldier to be killed in the war, the first VC awarded during the war, and Pte Price, who, until I read this article, I thought was the last person to be killed, being shot when breaking cover to accept flowers from a local. Outside Mons there is a memorial to mark the spot where the first skirmish of the war took place. For anyone interested in the history of the Great War, Mons & the surrounding area is well worth a visit.
An ex-soldier, Wales

I will be visiting St Symphorien Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on Sun 9 Nov 08 to attend the Act of Remembrance. The British Forces based in Mons will remember Pte Ellison and the other British and Canadian soldiers who lie at peace.
Iain Cassidy, Mons, Belgium

On the eve of this 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, the last Italian survivor, the "Bersagliere" and Kight of Vittorio Veneto Delfino Borroni, passed away aged 110. In remembrance.
Andrea Porretta, Milano, Italia

As an ex-soldier I am filled with deep sadness for all those who died, especially these last few. It's all too easy to forget and repeat mistakes. Remember remember should be the national refrain.
Steve, Iraq, England

Fighting was going on across many sectors of the Western Front right up to the Armistice at 11am, with Royal Artillery expending as much ammunition as they could before the cease-fire. Many soldiers thought the armistice was a sell-out, and wanted to press on into Germany as the German army was beaten, and they knew it.
John Austin, London, England

My great uncle died in France a few weeks before the Armistice. He was in the Argonne-Meuse campaign, which had heavy losses in early September when the American Expeditionary Force advanced perhaps too fast. I was able to get an idea of his actions by looking at military reports and maps. His body was returned to the US and buried in Dunn County, Wisconsin. I believe that he died in a military hospital behind the lines, as his body would not have been returned if he died on the front. What a bloody war.
Karen Ranney, Brooklyn, NY, USA

The armistice was for aesthetics and symbolism of 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month. An immediate ceasefire could have been ordered, instead we had the incidents you name. I am sure there would have been others, even at 5:30am, but the stories of men taking pot shots to relieve their bitterness before the ceasefire and the casualties these caused would not have happened. I believe the statistics show a large increase in casualties on the final day as men tried to enact a futile revenge before it was too late. The 11am ceasefire was the final example of the donkeys leading the lions. A disastrous end to a disastrous war.
Ceri Davies, Cardiff

Anyone interested in WWI should read Mud, Blood and Poppycock which debunks some of the images we have about the Great War. The donkeys were not so much donkeys after all and did the best that they possibly could in the circumstances they had been dealt. As for sitting the war out, if we had done that Germany would have won because of the destruction of morale and then mutiny in the French army that happened in either 1916 or 1917 - I can't remember. Some of the battles that the British had to fight were only to keep pressure off the French and divert German forces away to fight the British so as to hide the shocking situation that France's armed forces were close to collapse.
Steve, Ipswich

A family story is that my grandfather's cousin was killed on the Western front at about 11.20 am on 11 November - after the formal Armistice, because word hadn't reached the front. I don't know many details but I think he might either have had the surname Taunton-Read (or Reid) or be of that family. My grandfather's family were from Coventry.
Geraldine, London

I have often wondered how many men died while they waited for 11am. War is such a tragic waste and these stories are particularly poignant.
Whyvonnie, Crediton, Devon

Very sad. We owe a huge debt to these soldiers who suffered terribly in horrific conditions. It may be a long time ago but our gratitude should never fade.
Trevor, Limoges, France

As an historian who has studied World War I, and a former U.S. Marine, I am no longer shocked by the stupidity of the leaders of the various countries and their willingness to sacrifice the the lives of the young. I do remain saddened by the senseless slaughter and wonder if it will ever change.
David, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My Dad's Uncle died in Northern France two weeks after the end of the war having served with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He died as a result of the atrocious conditions, in his case pneumonia. Many thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for their help when we were tracing what happened to him.
Kieran Doody, Mornington, Co. Meath, Ireland

I am fortunate to have lead several tours for veterans to the Normandy beaches and accompanied tours to Arnhem and the WWI battlefields in France & Belgium. What strikes me most profoundly is how strongly the gratitude and appreciation persists in the minds and memories of the local people of these places of the sacrifices made by British and Commonwealth servicemen and women [many nurses were killed tending those brought back to the dressing stations behind the front lines]. It is possible, due to the superiority of the Royal Navy, that Britain could have sat out WWI, certainly until the entry into the conflict of the US. But the people of France & Belgium, with Holland, Norway, Greece and countries of eastern Europe, have a deep respect for Britain's commitment from the start of the two World Wars to free their countries of the invader. I believe that if more British people realised with how great a respect and affection their Armed Services are held by those we went to help, more appreciation would be shown in our own country for the great sacrifices of 1914-18 & 39-45. It is time we commemorated the 11th of the 11th with a national holiday, as they do in France. Lest we forget.
Chris Nation, Bristol

Chris Nation writes about gratitude of local people. All you need to do is go to Ypres/Ieper, Belgium and attend the daily ceremony at Menin gate to see what it means on daily basis to the townspeople of Ieper. Traffic stops, people get out of their cars for this ceremony. Cannot see that happening in London.
Bill Stark, Shanghai, China

Print Sponsor


Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific