Where the second biggest is still pretty darn big!
Updated on 11/11/2018
The armistice1 that ended the fighting in World War I was signed by representatives from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, at 5AM on 11/11/1918, in a railroad carriage in Compiègne, France, but the agreement didn’t go into effect for another six hours. WWI would end at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which was fine for those who like things wrapped up in neat little packages for posterity, but bad for those who were still in the trenches living like rats and getting shot at.
Between the signing of the armistice and the actual hour the armistice was to take effect, there were a further 11,000 total casualties sustained from all armies of both the Allies and Central Powers, and at least 2,700 killed. Some casualties were to be expected because as is true in all wars, news of cessation hostilities oftens take time to reach the troops, since these things have to go down a chain of command before reaching the actual trigger pullers. WWI was no different, however, it was still a much higher number of casualties than one would think would have otherwise occurred. This exposes a particularly awful truth of the armies of WWI that almost all Allied generals knew that the cease fire was going to be in effect, but some still knowingly ordered their troops into fruitless futile battle.
The fact that a good six hours stood between the signing of the armistice and the actual time it was to go into effect served as a sort of “get-out-of-guilt free” card for belligerent officers who ordered last-minute assaults and artillery barrages. Because technically an armistice could be rescinded and because they knew of the political ramifications of holding certain towns when it came to end-of-war negotiations, many generals insisted on there being last-minute assaults to take and hold certain key positions. But that wasn’t the only motive. Then there were some Allied attacks that were made for frivolous reasons that had nothing to with post-war negotiations.
There were some officers who wanted to punish the Germans on whom they blamed the war (apparently Russia, Italy, France, Austria-Hungary, and others were completely innocent in their twisted little minds). Then there were some vainglorious asshat officers who wanted to gain more combat experience thereby increasing the likelihood of winning promotions and medals. In several other cases, some officers simply wanted to take towns for their amenities. One egregious example is of American General William Wright, commander of the U.S. 89th Division, who ordered an attack on the German-held French town of Stenay. His aim was to seize the town so that he could quarter his own troops there once the armistice went into effect and make good use of the town’s public baths. His unit had been living in harsh wet conditions in the trenches for weeks and Wright thought that he and his men could do with the accommodation. The attack resulted in about 360 U.S. casualties and more than 60 killed.
Although we can’t be certain, had Wright’s soldiers been given a choice between living another few shitty weeks in dank trenches before pulling out, or assaulting a German-held town just to get a hot bath, it’s more than likely that they would have probably taken the trench.
The last known soldier to be killed in action before the armistice took effect was not the result of these ridiculous last minute attacks, but rather an ill-advised and suicidal charge. Private Henry Gunther was an American in the 313th Regiment of the 79th Infantry Division. On his own initiative, he charged at a German position with his bayonet less than a minute before the armistice was to go into effect — an armistice it should be noted of which Gunther was very well aware. As he charged toward the bewildered German soldiers, they tried to wave him off and yelled at him in English and German to stop, but Gunther kept going. He even fired off a couple shots at the Germans. When it became apparent that he had every intention of doing harm and that he wasn’t about to stop, a German machine gun cut him down before he could get any closer. His time of death was listed at 10:59AM.
As for why Gunther charged the Germans with the end of the fighting so near, it is believed that he was distraught after having been previously demoted in rank from sergeant. Gunther had written a letter to a friend back home telling him how miserable life in the trenches was and to do all that he could to avoid being drafted. When military censors found the letter, they immediately brought him up on charges, which resulted in the demotion. Some of his fellow soldiers later said that Gunther was so obsessed with restoring his rank, he began taking all sorts of risks in an attempt to regain his station. In a bit of dark irony, as a result of his being the last soldier to be killed in WWI, Gunther ended up getting his wish when his rank was posthumously reinstated.
The second-to-last soldier known to be killed before the armistice took effect was a Canadian private named George Lawrence Price, of the 28th Battalion. His death was less head-scratching and dramatic than Gunter’s but his was more typical in that his unit was unnecessarily ordered to advance.
Price was born on December 15, 1892, in Falmouth, Nova Scotia. At a very young age, his family moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where he spent the greater part of his youth. As an adult, Price worked as a farm laborer before he enlisted in the army in 1917 and ended up spending most of his military service in the trenches in Northern France. On the day the armistice was signed, Price and his unit were moving into the area around Mons, Belgium, not too far, coincidentally, from where the first British soldier was killed four years earlier.
As his unit advanced, Price was part of a five-man patrol, who went into the town of Ville-sur-Haine around 9 AM on the morning of November 11 to clear out possible machine gun nests that they believed could have compromised their position. The Germans had been retreating from the village but it seemed that rear guard soldiers were setting up machine gun nests to slow any advancing armies. As Price and his patrol entered the town, they were indeed shot at but they were in good cover behind a wall and none of them were hit. The Germans then began to retreat in full, or so the Canadian patrol thought.
Moving house to house, the patrol searched for any remaining Germans, but found none and began to believe that they had all gone. Villagers in the town, however, told Price and his men that there were some pockets of Germans still in the town and that not all had pulled out. According to some witness accounts, the villagers were even yelling at the soldiers to get out of the streets because of the German presence.
At about 10:57 AM, Price stepped out of a house he had been searching and was talking to a fellow soldier. Just then there was a loud crack of a gun, and Price fell forward limp into the arms of the soldier he was talking to, having been hit in the chest by a sniper’s bullet. Price’s comrades took him into the house quickly as others took cover. From across the street, a Belgian nurse much to her own peril ran over to help the soldier, but she was unable to stop the bleeding. Price died a minute later at 10:58 AM, becoming the last British Commonwealth soldier to fall in WWI, and the second-to-last known soldier to die in the war.
Sadly, Price and the men on the patrol were not aware of the 11AM armistice when they moved in. Presumably, neither was the German sniper.
Although there is enough evidence to say for certain when and where Price and Gunther were killed, it may not necessarily mean they were the last. In Africa for instance, there were several skirmishes going on after the armistice went into effect, as news of the ceasefire did not reach those remote outposts in time. There are also reports of skirmishes in different parts of the frontline resulting from last-minute assaults and artillery fire.
In many ways it shouldn’t make a difference whether a soldier died in the very beginning of a war or at the very end. There isn’t hard date for when we can say that those dead before it are normal war casualties and those after it are the victims of cruel irony or chance. Still, those last-day deaths, the ones that took place between the 5AM and 11AM on November 11, 1918, weighed heavily on the survivors, including many junior officers who ordered their men to assault against their own better judgement but who were following the orders of those above them. One of the countries, France, recognized the shame in having let more soldiers die when it was known an armistice would soon be in-place. To not “dishonor” the dead and to cover the shame of who were responsible putting those soldiers in danger so close to the armistice, the military listed the deaths of most of the French soldiers killed on November 11 as having occurred on November 10, or as having been injured on the 10th only succumbing to their wounds on the 11th. Those who ordered those attacks on November 11, 1918, deserved to feel shame and many should have been brought up on charges for having needlessly wasted so many lives.
One has to wonder that if Price had known of the armistice, maybe he would have been just a tiny bit more cautious, enough so to survive. Gunther on the other hand presents a different scenario. He knew the end was near and that fact alone may have actually motivated him to make one more charge before the whole thing was over.
In the end Price was a victim of circumstance much like the millions of other soldiers who perished over the previous four years, whereas Gunther was a victim of his own demons.