The Last British Death Of World War One

Any death in conflict is a tragedy – being killed within a hair’s breadth of one ending is perhaps even more poignant.  That’s what happened...

Any death in conflict is a tragedy – being killed within a hair’s breadth of one ending is perhaps even more poignant. 
That’s what happened to George Edwin Ellison, and it did so after a long and active military career, both before and during the First World War.
Ellison was born in 1878, so he was 40-years-old when he was killed at 9:30am on November 11, 1918 – 90 minutes before the armistice came into effect and the war in the west officially ended.
It wasn’t unusual for some soldiers to serve with non-local regiments, and Ellison, despite having come from Leeds, served with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers throughout the entire war. By the time of his death he’d taken part in some of the biggest battles to occur on the Western Front.
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George Ellison is pictured in the centre
But Ellison’s death, though tragic in-and-of itself and cruel in its timing, was only one of 2,738 deaths that day, and a further 10,944 casualties. 
This is because rather than just petering out, desperate fighting continued right through to the last minutes of the Great War.
On 8th November, delegations from both sides met to discuss possible peace terms at which the idea of stopping the fighting ahead of the agreed ceasefire was floated. But the outcome was that the fighting would continue even after the armistice had been officially signed at 5am on November 11th, until it officially came into effect at 11 o’clock that morning. 
For Britain, in this closing chapter of the war, the crossing of the Sambre-Oise Canal was one of their last actions. Here, the 2nd Royal Sussex and 2nd Manchesters forced their way across the canal at its narrowest point, engineers laying bridges that infantry charged across while under fire from Germans on the other side, many well protected inside the canal’s lockhouse. It was a huge action, and around 2,000 men were killed. 
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Wilfred Owen, the famous war poet who’d met Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, fought at the Sambre-Oise Canal on November 4th
One was 2nd Lt Wilfred Edward Salter Owen – shot in the head while trying to cross. He’d received the Military Cross for gallantry displayed in early October. News of this probably reached his family in good time. His death, occurring on November 4th, didn’t reach his family until November 11th, right after celebrations had started upon news of the armistice. 
As for George Ellison, by coincidence, his grave would end up opposite that of John Henry Parr. He is believed to have been the first British soldier killed in the war, while acting as a cycle scout, trying to hold off a Germany cavalry patrol’s advance. This is because one of the last places the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) fought on November 11th, 1918 was also the first place they fought in 1914.
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The St Symphorien Military Cemetery where both Ellison and Parr are buried (image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)
As unlucky as Ellison was to have been killed when he was, one American soldier, Private Henry Gunther, was killed at 10:59am. According to NBC News, he may have been fuelled by a desire to overcome prejudice about his German heritage as well as possibly reclaim former prestige after being demoted from Sergeant. Whatever his thinking, the fact is that he bayonet-charged German troops opposite whose, until then, reputedly perfunctory fire turned deadly accurate.
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Private Gunther had his sergeant rank posthumously restored, and was honoured on a plaque in Baltimore (image: Concord)
It was a senseless end to a man’s life, one many thought of as representative of the whole war.
Cover image: St Symphorien Military Cemetery (by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)