11 November 1918. 9.30 AM. George Ellison became the last British soldier to be killed in World War One, at Mons in Belgium. pic.twitter.com/Weu70PBF62— Prof Frank McDonough (@FXMC1957) November 11, 2018
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 November 8, 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 5 am on November 11, 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, 2 Royal Sussex and 2 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.
One was 2 Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen – shot in the head while trying to cross. He had 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 4, did not reach them until November 11, 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 11, 1918 was also the first place they fought in 1914.
As unlucky as Ellison was to have been killed when he was, one American soldier, Private Henry Gunther, was killed at 10:59 am.
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, he is said to have bayonet-charged German troops opposite whose, until then, reputedly perfunctory fire turned deadly accurate.
It was a senseless end to a man’s life, one many thought of as representative of the whole war.
This is an updated version of an article first published in 2016.