The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 brought peace, at last, to the war-ravaged fields of Flanders and other blood-soaked theatres of carnage. To
those three elevens would be added another – 11,000 men were killed or wounded on
that last day before the guns finally stopped firing.
It is a cruel irony that men who had fervently prayed they would make it home to
their loved ones would fall as the final hours and minutes ticked down to the
In frontline aid stations, in hospitals and in convalescence facilities far beyond the
sound of gunfire, soldiers would die as the minutes ticked down to peace. Historian
Tom Burnell estimates that 29 Irishmen lost their lives on that final day… most of
them to pneumonia, disease or by succumbing to wounds received days earlier.
However, four of them were killed in action that last day. Two were from Mayo –
Michael Garvin, from Newport, and Patrick Murray, from Doocastle. Austin Francis
O’Hare, from Clare, was also killed. All three served with the US Army. George
Grover, from Dublin, a private in the Royal Army Service Corps, was serving in Egypt
when he was killed in action on November 11.
To die in those last hours seems somehow crueler than to be one of the 16 million
who died over the course of the entire war.
Private George Elison was the last British soldier to be killed. Elison served with the Royal Irish Lancers and had enlisted at the start of the war in 1914. He’d had an eventful time of it, fighting at Mons, as well as in the battles of Ypres, Armentieres, La Bassée, Lens, the Battle of Loos and the Battle of Cambrai.
Elison, born in Leeds, was 40 years old when he was killed while on patrol in Mons. Married to Hannah and with a son, James, he died at 9.30am, just an hour-and-a-half before the armistice came into effect.
Frenchman Augustin Trébuchon was a messenger with the 163rd Infantry Division when they were ordered to cross the flooding Meuse river near the town of Sedan and to attack an elite German unit.
Drenched by rain and freezing with cold, about 700 men crossed the river at a railway line a little after 8am under cover of heavy fog, some falling in the water and drowning along the way.
Then, at 10.30am, the fog cleared and the Germans opened fire with machine guns. Ninety-one Frenchmen were killed in the action. Trébuchon was the last to die – shot as he tried to deliver a message to his comrades to muster for food. Augustin Trébuchon died at 10.45am, with just 15 minutes to go before fighting was to cease.
Canadian soldier George Lawrence Price, from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, was serving with the 28th Infantry Battalion on November 11. The 26-year-old was part of a five-man patrol that was checking buildings beside the canal at Ville-sur-Haine, in Mons, for signs of the enemy.
Unfortunately, they found them – a group of German soldiers in the process of setting up machine guns on a wall overlooking the canal. There was an exchange of fire; both sides took cover and the Germans retreated.
The Canadians began to follow, but just as George stepped out onto the street he was shot in the chest by a German sniper. Dragged into a nearby house, he was treated by a local nurse, but there was little she could do.
George Price died soon after, at 10.58am… just two minutes before the armistice.
US Army Sergeant Henry Gunther got even closer to that magic hour before his life was taken. Gunther, 23, was either brave beyond all compare or someone with a death wish. The bronze plaque at the base of his grave refers to him being ‘highly decorated for exceptional bravery and heroic action that resulted in his death one minute before the Armistice’.
Gunther’s unit – Alpha Company, 313rd Regiment, 79th Infantry Division – were
pinned down by a German ambush during the Battle of Argonnne Forest. News
reached the men that the war would be over at 11am, and as the last minutes ticked
away Henry Gunther stood up and charged forward, with fixed bayonet, towards a
German machine-gun unit.
The Germans pleaded with him to stop but on he charged until they were forced to open fire, hitting him in the head. He was killed at 10.59am.
Why had Henry Gunther, a recently engaged bank bookkeeper, felt the need to do such a thing?
Some point to the fact that he had recently been demoted for writing disparagingly in a letter to a friend about army life. Another reason lies in that surname… Gunther. His family were of German descent and were wrongly suspected of being spies. Gunther himself felt he was suspected of being a German sympathiser.
After his demotion (his rank was reinstated after his death), Gunther went out of his way to put himself into harm’s way. So, perhaps, that mad headlong charge at the enemy was less about bravery and more about Henry Gunther thinking he had a point to prove about his patriotism. Either way, it cost him his life and a peculiar place in the history books – as being the last man killed before the armistice.
But what were troops doing engaging with the enemy at all when the clock was
counting down to peace? General John Pershing, commander of the American
Expeditionary Force, had told his men to continue fighting even after the armistice…
an order which resulted in the loss of 3,500 Americans on that final day.
Pershing later stood by his order, claiming that Marshal Ferdinand Foch,
commander-in-chief of Allied Forces in France, had told him to maintain pressure on the
retreating enemy until the ceasefire went into effect.
It wasn’t just American officers who put their men’s lives at risk. Just before 11am,
the commander of the British army’s 88th Infantry Brigade, Bernard Freyburg led a
cavalry charge of a detachment of the 7th Dragoon Guards through enemy outposts
and on into the village of Lessines as bullets flew in all directions (one hit Freyburg’s
saddle), he and his men managed the feat with just seconds to spare before the
Awarded the Victoria Cross, three Distinguished Service Orders, wounded twice and
mentioned in despatches five times, Freyburg clearly loved being in the thick of the
fighting, but why he would risk the lives of his men in such a futile action is open to
Unfortunately, the killing didn’t stop with the start of the armistice. According to
some sources, the last German said to have been killed was a Lieutenant Tomas, who
approached some US soldiers after 11am to tell them that he and his men were
vacating a nearby house and that the Americans were free to use it. Not knowing about the armistice, the soldiers shot him down.
As the centenary looms, take a moment to remember the millions who gave their lives during four years of murderous mayhem… four years of heartache that continued unrelentingly right up to that eleventh hour and to those terrible dying minutes of World War One.