Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Private George Ellison, the last British soldier to die

By John Hayes-Fisher
Producer, Timewatch

In the closing minutes of World War I, the ceasefire within touching
distance, a handful of troops died. As the 90th anniversary of the Armistice
approaches, who were these men?

Just after 5 o'clock on the morning of 11 November, 1918, British,
French and German officials gathered in a railway carriage to the north of
Paris and signed a document which would in effect bring to an end World War

Within minutes, news of the Armistice - the cease fire - had been
flashed around the world that the war, which was meant to "end all wars",
was finally over.

And yet it wasn't, because the cease-fire would not come into effect
for a further six hours - at 11am - so troops on the frontline would be sure
of getting the news that the fighting had stopped.

That day many hundreds died, and thousands more injured.

Timewatch: The Last Day of World War I, is on BBC Two at 2015
GMT on Saturday 1 November
Or catch up later with the BBC iPlayer
The respected American author Joseph E Persico has calculated a
shocking figure that the final day of WWI would produce nearly 11,000
casualties, more than those killed, wounded or missing on D-Day, when Allied
forces landed en masse on the shores of occupied France almost 27 years

What is worse is that hundreds of these soldiers would lose their
lives thrown into action by generals who knew that the Armistice had already
been signed.

The recklessness of General Wright, of the 89th American Division, is
a case in point.

Seeing his troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were
bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to
take the town so his men could refresh themselves.

"That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties, many of
them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason," says Mr Persico.

Final fallen

So who were the last to die?

New research by the BBC's Timewatch tells the story of some of the
last to fall in WWI.

The final British soldier to be killed in action was Private George
Edwin Ellison. At 9.30am Private Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers was
scouting on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons where German soldiers
had been reported in a wood.

Michael Palin looks over Private Ellison's war record

Aged 40, Pte Ellison was not the typical conscript, says military
historian Paul Reed.

"He was a pre-war regular soldier; we can tell this by his number (L
/12643) which is consistent with a man who enlisted in the early years of
the 20th Century. He may even have been a Boer war veteran, considering his

It must have been odd for Pte Ellison to be back in Mons again. This
is where his war started four years earlier when he was part of the British
Expeditionary Force retreating from Mons in August 1914, just weeks after
the outbreak of the war.

"During his four years at the front, George saw every type of
warfare," says Mr Reed.

"He went into the first trenches as the war became deadlocked. He
fought in the first gas attack, and on the Somme in 1916, watched the first
ever tanks go up to the front."

Almost a million British soldiers had been killed in those intervening
years, yet almost miraculously Pte Ellison had so far escaped uninjured. In
just over an hour the ceasefire would come into force, the war would be over
and Pte Ellison, a former coal miner, would return to the terraced street in
Leeds to see his wife Hannah and their four-year-old son James.

And then the shot rang out. George was dead - the last British soldier
to be killed in action in WWI.

Although the last British soldier to die, Pte Ellison would not be the
last to be killed that morning. As the minutes ticked towards the 11 o'clock
ceasefire, more soldiers would fall.

At 10.45 another 40-year-old soldier, Frenchman Augustin Trebuchon,
was taking a message to troops by the River Meuse saying that soup would be
served at 11.30 after the peace, when he too was killed.

Astonished enemy

Augustin Trebuchon's grave - along with all those French soldiers
killed on 11 November 1918 - is marked 10/11/18. It is said that after the
war France was so ashamed that men would die on the final day that they had
all the graves backdated.

Just minutes before 11am, to the north around Mons, the 25-year-old
Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was on the trail of retreating German

It was street fighting. Pte Price had just entered a cottage as the
Germans left through the back. On emerging into the street he was struck by
the bullet which killed him.

But Pte Price's death at 10.58 was not the last. Further south in the
Argonne region of France, US soldier Henry Gunther was involved in a final
charge against astonished German troops who knew the Armistice was about to
occur. What could they do? He too was shot.

The Baltimore Private - ironically of German descent - was dead. It
was 10.59 and Henry Gunther is now recognised as the last soldier to be
killed in action in WWI.

Ninety years later, George Ellison's granddaughters Catherine and
Marie make an emotional first visit to the cemetery where their grandfather

Pte Ellison's granddaughters visit his grave for the first time

Catherine knows he died just five days short of her own father's
(George's only son James) 5th birthday. "It must have been terrible for my
grandma" she says.

It's the first time anyone from the family has seen George's grave. As
the two sisters lay white lilies beneath their grandfather's headstone,
Marie echoes what many families in Britain today still feel about those who
gave their lives in that war.

"We are very proud."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My father was the doctor serving with the 2nd Kings African Rifles in
the bush on the Mozambique border on 11/11/18. It took three days for the
armistice message to get through (via the Germans) and there were several
serious skirmishes in the meanwhile killing a British officer and several
Antony Murphy, Birmingham

Many also fell after the armistice, news of this agreement to cease
hostilities took time to reach to the frontline in the far reaches. My great
grandfather was killed in Palestine after the 11/11/1918 armistice. I'm sure
he was not alone, sad but true.
Matthew, Swindon

Matthew, my grandfather was a Lewis gunner in the Machine Gun Corps;
initially on the Western Front but then in Palestine. I recall him telling
me, during my childhood, that he fought on for several days after 11/11/18
and that British soldiers were killed beyond Armistice Day.
David, Douglas

This is a tragic tale but let's also remember those who died in the
years after the end of WWI whilst clearing the battlefields of the Western
Front. There are many war graves to be found that are dated post 1918, many
of them are Royal Engineers who were killed by unexploded ordinance.
Simon Kirby, Melbourn, Cambridgeshire

In the same cemetery as Pte Ellison's grave are also the graves of the
first British soldier to be killed in the war, the first VC awarded during
the war, and Pte Price, who, until I read this article, I thought was the
last person to be killed, being shot when breaking cover to accept flowers
from a local. Outside Mons there is a memorial to mark the spot where the
first skirmish of the war took place. For anyone interested in the history
of the Great War, Mons & the surrounding area is well worth a visit.
An ex-soldier, Wales

I will be visiting St Symphorien Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on
Sun 9 Nov 08 to attend the Act of Remembrance. The British Forces based in
Mons will remember Pte Ellison and the other British and Canadian soldiers
who lie at peace.
Iain Cassidy, Mons, Belgium

Fighting was going on across many sectors of the Western Front right
up to the Armistice at 11am, with Royal Artillery expending as much
ammunition as they could before the cease-fire. Many soldiers thought the
armistice was a sell-out, and wanted to press on into Germany as the German
army was beaten, and they knew it.
John Austin, London, England

The armistice was for aesthetics and symbolism of 11am on the 11th day
of the 11th month. An immediate ceasefire could have been ordered, instead
we had the incidents you name. I am sure there would have been others, even
at 5:30am, but the stories of men taking pot shots to relieve their
bitterness before the ceasefire and the casualties these caused would not
have happened. I believe the statistics show a large increase in casualties
on the final day as men tried to enact a futile revenge before it was too
late. The 11am ceasefire was the final example of the donkeys leading the
lions. A disastrous end to a disastrous war.
Ceri Davies, Cardiff

A family story is that my grandfather's cousin was killed on the
Western front at about 11.20 am on 11 November - after the formal Armistice,
because word hadn't reached the front. I don't know many details but I think
he might either have had the surname Taunton-Read (or Reid) or be of that
family. My grandfather's family were from Coventry.
Geraldine, London

I have often wondered how many men died while they waited for 11am.
War is such a tragic waste and these stories are particularly poignant.
Whyvonnie, Crediton, Devon

Very sad. We owe a huge debt to these soldiers who suffered terribly
in horrific conditions. It may be a long time ago but our gratitude should
never fade.
Trevor, Limoges, France

As an historian who has studied World War I, and a former U.S. Marine,
I am no longer shocked by the stupidity of the leaders of the various
countries and their willingness to sacrifice the the lives of the young. I
do remain saddened by the senseless slaughter and wonder if it will ever
David, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

My Dad's Uncle died in Northern France two weeks after the end of the
war having served with the Royal Garrison Artillery. He died as a result of
the atrocious conditions, in his case pneumonia. Many thanks to the
Commonwealth War Graves Commission for their help when we were tracing what
happened to him.
Kieran Doody, Mornington, Co. Meath, Ireland

I am fortunate to have lead several tours for veterans to the Normandy
beaches and accompanied tours to Arnhem and the WWI battlefields in France &
Belgium. What strikes me most profoundly is how strongly the gratitude and
appreciation persists in the minds and memories of the local people of these
places of the sacrifices made by British and Commonwealth servicemen and
women [many nurses were killed tending those brought back to the dressing
stations behind the front lines]. It is possible, due to the superiority of
the Royal Navy, that Britain could have sat out WWI, certainly until the
entry into the conflict of the US. But the people of France & Belgium, with
Holland, Norway, Greece and countries of eastern Europe, have a deep respect
for Britain's commitment from the start of the two World Wars to free their
countries of the invader. I believe that if more British people realized
with how great a respect and affection their Armed Services are held by
those we went to help, more appreciation would be shown in our own country
for the great sacrifices of 1914-18 & 39-45. It is time we commemorated the
11th of the 11th with a national holiday, as they do in France. Lest we
Chris Nation, Bristol

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