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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

George Lawrence Price (1892-1918)
It feels a little strange to want to begin a week of Remembrance Day posts with the very end of a war. Still, I think the story of Private George Lawrence Price - the man traditionally recognised as the last soldier killed in The Great War - is a good way to get people back into the kind of thinking that this time of year asks of us.

Price was born in 1892 in King's County, Nova Scotia and was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan when the reality of war truly hit home with Canadians. After three years of the deadliest war ever seen in the west, the desparate need for new troops led to conscription orders in the United Kingdom and Canada. In May of 1917, Parliament passed the Military Service Act; Price was among the thousands drafted into the Canadian military that year.

Fast-forward to November, 1918. Paul von Hindenburg, Acting Commander of the German forces, requested to meet Allied Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch to begin negotiations to end the war. On the 11th at 5am, the Armistice was signed and orders were sent to all forces:

"Hostilities will cease at 11:00 hours on November 11th - Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that time which will be reported to Corps Headquarters - Strictest precautions will be maintained - There will be no intercourse of any kind with the enemy."

That same morning, Private Price and his unit, the 28th "Northwest" Battalion, had orders to capture the village of Havre and a canal crossing. They had received the ceasefire orders at about 9am . . . so in other words, the war - and consequently their orders - were still on.

Price was part of a four-man patrol to the other side of the canal. Whether they were ordered to go on the patrol or not, I haven't been able to figure out. The fact still remains that the four of them crossed the canal under machine gun fire and into a house on the other side. The German machine gunners inside the house escaped out the back just as Price and his group came through the front, finding only the house owner and his family. This man would then tell the Canadians to "be careful." They dismissed the warning and continued out the back of the house.

Private Price was shot in the chest by a German sniper almost right after stepping back outside. It was 10:57 when it happened; he died a minute later despite all efforts by his comrades and the local civilians. He was a month short from being 26 years old.

Private George Lawrence Price was killed chasing people whom in three minutes would no longer be his enemy. His battalion spent an entire morning pushing towards objectives that ultimately didn't affect the already-established end to the war. And make no mistake, once word got out about the Armistice, many forces on all sides eased up their advances, took safer alternatives to wait out the rest of the war. So why not theirs? Their captain is on record having chewed out the surviving three for crossing in the first place. And although 11am was the official end of hostilities, it goes without saying that by all reality, the war was over hours before then.

There are other stories about the final minutes of The Great War. As the final hours led up to 11am, gunfire was easing up all over by people desiring to survive. At 10:58 - the same time that Private Price died at the canal - a German machine gunner in a slightly different area decided to lay down the trigger of his weapon, raking machine gun fire across the extremely unaggressive allied front. For the next two minutes, the German soldier let loose... and just as abruptly as it started, he ceased at 11am on the dot; after the war was over, it's said that he climbed up and out of his trench, took off his helmet, and took a large and dramatic bow in plain site of everyone before turning around and leaving the First World War forever.

I'm fairly certain that this unnamed machine gunner didn't kill anybody during those two minutes as anyone on the receiving end was undoubtedly smart enough to keep his head down for just a couple more minutes. But the potential and the reality were still there . . . just another pointless (albeit memorable) way to symbolically end their war.

George Lawrence Price was not so lucky. Rather than being remembered for some insane stunt and a ridiculous farewell, he gets to be remembered as the last soldier in the Commonwealth to be killed in the war. With two minutes left in the war, it's very likely that he was the last soldier killed in the war period, and holds that dubious distinction in tradition. I suppose as a Canadian myself, it makes for a curious story. I mean, there are plenty of famous Canadian distinctions during the wars (the WWI sniper with the most confirmed kills is among them, I believe). Not what I'd want to be remembered for, personally . . . but in the end, his name serves as the last of many to die for something that - with a signed Armistice just waiting to come into effect - absolutely, positively never should have been allowed to happen.

Private Price is buried at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery, just southwest of Mons where he fought.

Now here's the tricky part: having heard all that, you still cannot call his death pointless or meaningless. To do that would devalue his life and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others who also died in similar circumstances. If anything, his death reminds us that life has value, and that we can't just plunge ourselves thoughtless into these kinds of situations . . . because we can't afford the alternative anymore.

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(Left: Private George Lawrence Price; Right: his grave.)

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