|Photo by Bob Richardson 2007|
THE LAST PATROL
Half a mile behind him, the village of Havre, east of Mons, was in joyous tumult as Belgian villagers welcomed their liberators, A Company of the 28th Northwest Battalion of the Canadian Corps. Private Goodmurphy had abandoned the festivities to do his own reconnaissance of the suspicious-looking hamlet across the Canal du Centre. His platoon had been told by Captain ‘Blondie” Ross to halt on the west bank of the canal. But the west side was devoid of cover, and Goodmurphy had spotted loop-holes in the top level of the brick house closest to the bridge. When the advance resumed it would be over this bridge the 28th would cross. The house offered a perfect position for German machine-guns to sweep the bridge and its approaches.
Art Goodmurphy, a former glazier from Regina, was a veteran despite his twenty-one years. He had been through a lot with the 28th -- the Somme in 1916, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele in 1917, and already this year -- Amiens, the D-Q Line, Canal du Nord and Cambrai. Now at last the Allies were on the move, pushing the Germans steadily eastward. Casualties had been a lot lighter over the last ten days. It looked like the end of the war was near, but it didn’t pay to get confident. Yesterday a shell had ploughed into the ground beside Goodmurphy and four of his chums. They should have been goners, but it failed to explode. Then there was Private Coughler, killed just a few days ago. Now there was this suspicious bridge. If anything looked like a trap this was it.
Goodmurphy rose cautiously to his feet. All remained silent except for the distant rejoicing. He advanced along the road towards the ominous bridge crouching like a gigantic iron grass-hopper over the canal. So intent was he upon the dark loop-holes that he jumped when a soft voice called from beside him, “Murph, where you going?”
It was Private Price, an A Company runner, crouched behind a shrub. George Price was a native of Port Williams, Nova Scotia. One of very few Maritimers in the Saskatchewan battalion, he had been working on a farm near Stony Beach when he walked into Moose Jaw to enlist. “Looks suspicious to me,” said Price. “I think we should go across there and see what‘s in those houses. Let’s get a couple more guys to go over with us.”
Within minutes they had found three more ’Norwesters’ to make the recce. All were Privates and Lewis-gunners, but as no one wanted to lug the heavy weapons on a reconnaisance patrol, each was armed only with a pistol. If any had thought to look at their watches, they would have discovered it was almost eleven o’clock on the most important day of their lives -- 11 November, 1918.
At 05.00 that morning, in a railway car on a siding in the Forest of Compiegne, the German and Allied delegations had signed the documents arranging the Armistice. All fighting would cease in six hours -- at 11.00. An hour and a half after the signing, at 06.30, Canadian Corps Headquarters had received the news. From there it had been dispersed to the four divisions, then to the twelve brigades, then down to the forty-eight battalions and support units. From battalion headquarters it had became more difficult to disseminate the glad tidings. The last weeks’ rapid pursuit meant that numerous platoons, sections and even individuals, were scattered over a wide area, all isolated and hard to find as they slipped stealthily forward along country lanes, through woods, and across fields devoid of cover.
The foremost unit was the 28th Northwest Battalion, advancing south of Mons against increasing enemy fire. It had been 09.30 while clearing the Bois la Haut that Headquarters of the 28th had received Marshal Foch’s communiqué accompanied by this terse addendum:
“Attacking battalions ordered to push on with all possible speed in order to gain as much territory as possible before 11.00 hours.”
An officer astride a captured horse was sent to notify the platoons stretched along the line of advance. In Havre the word had arrived around 10.30. “The street was plugged with people shouting, ‘Germans kaput!’ We reached a corner with five roads and a big building marked with bullets and shrapnel from 1914 when a staff officer appeared and said there was going to be an armistice,” recalled Dick Herrod of Moose Jaw. “‘What the hell’s an armistice,’ we asked after he was gone. Then word came from somewhere to ’Give ’em hell till eleven o’clock.”
Meanwhile half a mile ahead, the five privates, alert and watchful, were advancing on the ominous bridge. They had just reached the west bank of the canal when they spotted a German machine-gun crew setting up on a knoll on the far side, but to the right of the houses. Without a moment’s hesitation they all dashed across the bridge into the hamlet of Ville-sur-Haine. Except for the loop-holes in the nearest of the two adjoining houses, all appeared serene.
“We ran up to this first brick house, kicked the door open, and went in just like gangsters with our pistols drawn,” recalled Art Goodmurphy. Waiting for them were the inhabitants, Monsieur Stievenart and his six-year-old son, Omer -- alone. “Les allemandes sont alles,” they announced, their faces beaming. Upstairs, the Canadians found beside the loop-holes, a litter of tools and spent casings.
Years later Omer Stievenart recalled, “About 10.30 the Germans suddenly ran down stairs, left their tools and ran away, not by the front door, but by the rear. My father and Monsieur Lenoir (who lived next door) surprised at the unexpected flight, looked toward the bridge and distinctly saw soldiers in khaki uniforms -- just like the British in 1914.” Thus Ville-sur-Haine had its first glimpse of its liberators.
In the adjacent house the Canadians discovered only an elderly couple, the Lenoirs. After searching that house, they gratefully accepted celebratory refreshments. No sooner had they taken glasses in hand when German machine-guns opened up from the knoll behind the houses. Bullets knocked tiles from the rear roofs and pock-marked the solid brick walls. Price and Goodmurphy stepped into the street, sheltered by the houses, to check on the bridge. “It looked like an emery wheel the way the bullets were ricocheting off that iron-work. There was no way anybody could cross that bridge now.” The Canadians gathered in the Stievenarts’ house on the corner to plan their next step.
At that moment, five minutes before eleven, these five young Canadian privates were the tip of the entire Allied advance. They knew nothing of that, nor that the rest of the world was going mad with joy at the impending cease-fire. They just knew their recce patrol had sprung the suspected trap, and they were stuck on the wrong side of the canal. Because there were no windows overlooking the canal, Price and Goodmurphy decided to have another look at their escape route while the enemy blasted away at the back wall of the house. Maybe they had quit firing upon the bridge.
Lifting the latch, the two stepped out onto the cobbled street. The bridge was still under heavy fire, with ricochets whining in all directions. Then they sighted a lone German soldier. “He was down in the canal creeping along the edge of the water. He was ducking down, but he didn’t know we were there.” Price and Goodmurphy looked at one another, but neither moved to shoot him. “Hell, he was just trying to get out of there, back to his own people.”
By now more of the 28th had arrived on the far bank of the canal and taken what little cover they could find. From there they watched the final scene unfold. Even closer, across the street, was another eye-witness, Mademoiselle Alice Grotte, a twenty-three year-old nurse with dark, flashing eyes. She saw the two young Canadians step into the street, while the elderly Lenoirs beckoned wildly for them to come back inside.
“George was facing me,” recalled Art Goodmurphy, “and I was saying something to him when all of a sudden, BANG! He fell forward into my arms. I could have cried. It was not an accidental shot. It was a sniper from way up the end of the street.”
Alice Grotte darted into the street heedless of the sniper as Goodmurphy dragged his comrade to shelter behind a brick wall. Together they carried him into the end house. Everyone tried to help. Madame Lenoir tried to feed the wounded man broth; the nurse, Alice Grotte, made Price as comfortable as possible. She recognized that he was mortally wounded. Within a minute or two Private George Lawrence Price was dead, the last battlefield casualty of The Great War, the War To End All Wars.
All at once the machine-guns stopped their savage chatter. No rifle shots sounded. In the distance church bells rang. The four Canadians decided to chance re-crossing the bridge carrying their comrade’s body. In silence they crossed while from the distance came sounds of jubilation. On the far side they met Captain Ross and told him what had happened.
“But the war is over. The war is over,” the shocked Captain kept repeating.
“Over?” exclaimed Goodmurphy incredulously. “Over? How the hell did we know that? No one told us. It sure as hell wasn’t ‘over’ across there!”
The villagers of Ville-sur-Haine pleaded to be allowed to provide a coffin and bury their fallen hero, but Price was buried in the nearby cemetery of St. Symphorien. Like every Canadian soldier killed in action, he was laid to rest wrapped in a blanket. By one of those ironies of war, the last casualty was buried beside the British soldiers killed near Mons during the first battle of the war.
George Price’s comrades met again fifty years later, on 11 November, 1968, to erect a monument to his memory on the spot where he died. With them to unveil the plaque on the wall of the Stievenart’s house was the last commanding officer of the 28th ‘Norwesters’. Also present was the girl with the dark, flashing eyes who fifty years earlier had tried to save the life of Private Price, the last casualty of The War To End All Wars. The plaque states in both English and French:
“TO THE MEMORY OF 256265 PRIVATE GEORGE LAWRENCE PRICE 28th NORTH WEST BATTALION 6th CANADIAN INFANTRY BRIGADE 2nd CANADIAN DIVISION KILLED IN ACTION NEAR THIS SPOT AT 10.58 HOURS NOVEMBER 11TH 1918 THE LAST CANADIAN SOLDIER TO DIE ON THE WESTERN FRONT IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR ERECTED BY HIS COMRADES NOVEMBER 11TH 1968”
A number of years ago, James L. McWilliams sent me the foregoing article he had written as an article ffor Reader's Digest magazine and gave me permission to share it.