You would expect that, with the armistice having already been signed, the soldiers would stop fighting, but they didn’t. At about 9.30 a.m. the last British soldier died. Pvt George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers was killed while scouting the road on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons. At 10.45 French soldier Augustin Trebuchon died while carrying a message to troops stationed along the river Meuse, telling them that soup would be served 30 minutes after the Armistice started.
Just minutes before the Armistice started, Canadian soldier Pvt George Lawrence Price was shot and killed leaving a cottage, through which he had just followed some retreating German soldiers.
In the very last minute of the war, Pvt Henry Gunther of the United States Army was killed when American soldiers made a surprise attack on a group of German soldiers who were waiting for the Armistice to take effect.
It isn’t absolutely clear who was the last German soldier killed, but it may have been Leutnant Tomas, who died after the war had officially ended. He approached a group of American soldiers to inform them that, as the war had ended, he and his men would vacate the house they were occupying so that the Americans could take possession. The news of the end of the war hadn’t reached the American soldiers and they shot the German.
On the day the war ended, even as the news reached the front line that it was to end at 11 o'clock, there were 11,000 casualties on all sides, 2,700 of whom were killed. This was actually a higher number than the daily average for the entire war. The High Commands of both sides, when they signed the Armistice documents at 5 a.m. that morning, had neglected to make arrangements for a truce or cease fire to fill the intervening time.
At least we try to do that. The reality is that if the 11th falls on a working day, a lot of people just go on with their lives. So instead, on the nearest Sunday to the 11th, we hold Remembrance Sunday. In churches up and down the country, special services are held, then the congregations make their way to the local war memorial to lay wreaths of poppies in an act of remembrance.
To mark this season of remembrance, we Brits wear a replica poppy as a symbol, to show that we haven’t forgotten those who died to keep us free. The poppy was chosen as a symbol because it is blood red, and also because it grew in great numbers across the battlefields of France, because the poppy grows best in ground that has been churned up, as it was by the exploding of a billion artillery shells.
During the Festival there are displays from the current members of the armed forces, bands play and songs and hymns are sung. At the end there is a short religious service, the Act of Remembrance, followed by 2 minutes silence during which poppy petals fall from the ceiling. The whole thing is televised on the BBC. It is a very moving event and it is a very hard heart that doesn’t allow a tear to be shed as the poppies drift down to settle gently on the heads of the service personnel standing in silence below. You can watch the 2015 Festival Of Remembrance here.
The last of those to have served in World War I died many years ago and most of those who march will be too young to have served in World War II. Their wars will have been in Korea, Kenya, Malaya, Aden, Northern Ireland, the Falkland Islands, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and a hundred other small places where British soldiers, sailors and airmen have shed their blood over the last 70 odd years. It is another very moving scene.
This year our Queen won’t lay her wreath in person. Age is taking its toll on her, so instead she will look on from the balcony of Horse Guards as a family member lays her wreath on her behalf. She will be one of only a handful of people present who actually served in the Second World War, along with her husband, Prince Philip.
People make a donation to the Royal British Legion when they buy their commemorative poppy, and that money is used to help former service personnel and their families. They help those who have fallen on hard times. They help those who have been injured to battle back to fitness, or at least to battle against their disabilities. They give people hope. The stories that can be told about the work of the RBL are many, but you can read some of them on their website as well as read the stories of some of the people who fought in our wars.
If you are moved by any of those stories, you can also make a donation through the website if you wish.
Next year, in August 2018, the 90th anniversary of the Great Pilgrimage, the RBL is holding GP90, returning once again to Flanders in the largest memorial parade to be held there since that date in 1928. I am proud to say that I will be representing my local RBL branch, along with our Standard Bearer, laying a wreath at the Menin Gate. You can find out more about this event here. Each branch is raising funds its own way to send its representatives, so the money isn’t coming from the Poppy Appeal. Do, please, support your local RBL branch so that they can send someone along.
And tomorrow, Sunday 12th November, at 11 a.m. please stay silent for just 2 minutes to remember those that gave their lives so that you can live yours in peace.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
For your tomorrow we gave our today.”