The last to die - Irishmen and the final day of the First World War
by Mike Cronin
The years of World War One, which began in the late summer of 1914, resulted in a tide of men leaving Ireland to fight in various theatres of war. It is estimated that some 210,000 Irishmen joined the war, and that over 35,000 died. The men came from both the catholic and protestant communities on the island, as well as from the Irish diaspora communities of countries from across the British Empire and many other thousands of Irish heritage who fought in the uniform of the United States.
The armistice that ended World War One was signed just outside Paris in the early morning of 11 November 1918. To allow news of the armistice to spread across the battlefields of Europe the moment of the actual end of the fighting was pegged for 11 am that day. Fighting continued, on a small and localised scale, right through the morning and until the 11 am ceasefire. It is estimated that on the last morning of the war 11,000 men were killed or wounded. The last man to die in action, one minute before the armistice, was the American, Henry Gunther, who was killed in fighting near Meuse as he attacked a German machine gun position.
The final British solider to die in the war was George Ellison. He had been born in York, and served as a regular solider in the British Army until 1912. After he left he worked in coal mines outside of Leeds. With the outbreak of the war he rejoined the army, and was posted to the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Ellison fought the first Battle of Mons in 1914, and was active in uniform throughout the war. After four years of fighting across the western front, Ellison and the 5th Royal Lancers found themselves back in Mons as the armistice approached. Patrolling in woods on the outskirts of Mons at around 9.30 am, Ellison was shot by a German sniper. In a strange symmetry that illustrates the sheer futility of the fighting between 1914 and 1918, and the meagre gains in territory that either side made, Ellison died not far from where the first casualty of the war, John Parr, was killed in August 1914. Both men are buried near to each other at the St Symphorien Military Cemetery, just outside Mons. Given the changing politics within Ireland and the transformation in Anglo-Irish relations following the War of Independence, Ellison’s 5th Royal Irish Lancers were disbanded, along with all other Irish regiments of the British Army in 1921.
It is estimated that 29 Irishmen died on 11 November 1918. These men died of illness or wounds inflicted in the weeks before; none of them were killed in action on Armistice Day itself. The last Irishman to die in World War One lived through Armistice Day. Private Thomas Farrell was a catholic from Lucan and was also enlisted, like Ellison, with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers. Farrell was injured in fighting around Mons on 10 November 1918. Despite being treated, and clinging to life throughout Armistice Day, Farrell died on 12 November 1918.
He wouldn’t be the last man to die after the peace of his war time wounds. For those who made it home the physical and psychological scars took a heavy toll. Many struggled to find solace after the end of the war, and succumbed to homelessness, addiction and suicide. By way of one example, Guy Nightingale, a Major in the Royal Munster Fusiliers, who had led his men into the first day of fighting at Gallipoli in 1915, failed to readjust to life post-war. Nightingale (whose story can be read here) feel into depression and alcoholism. On the 20th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings in 1935 Nightingale decided he had had enough and shot himself in the head.
As news of the armistice spread across the western front the level of fighting generally decreased. This was not the case in those areas where the United States Forces were active. General Pershing of US Forces appeared to have been sceptical of the armistice and questioned whether the Germans would honour the ceasefire. As a result United States Forces were involved in heavy fighting on 11 November. Two major operations – crossing the River Meuse and taking the town of Stenay from German control (the last town to fall in World War One) – led to casualties of 1,300 for the Americans. Those who died in US uniform on 11 November included three Mayo-born men Michael Garvin, Patrick Murray and Michael Walsh. Another man to die, originally from Kilfenora, County Clare, was Austin O’Hare. He was 30 years old when he was killed, and had emigrated to Massachusetts in his early 20s where he worked as a labourer. He is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial.
Ireland underwent profound changes during the years of the First World War. The country was transformed by the Easter Rising of 1916 and would find partial independence from Britain following the years of revolution, 1919-23. Some men who had fought in World War One joined the revolution and fight for Irish freedom, while many others quietly returned home and avoided war and conflict. Others fought lonely battles against injuries of the body or of the mind, haunted by the memories of World War One and the thousands who had died fighting with them.
The transformed politics of revolutionary, and later, independent Ireland, meant that having worn a British uniform in the 1914-18 war was something that was forgotten and not worthy of memorialisation or commemoration. In Britain, and elsewhere across its Empire, World War One commemoration was a central part of public life each 11 November. Services of commemoration would end with the lines of Laurence Binyon: 'At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.' For a long time, the Irishmen of World War One, whether they died on Armistice Day or before, were simply forgotten.
(Memorialisation to the dead of World War One did take place across Ireland, although often at the personal level, in private places or else commemorating specific groups. The best research list of WW1 memorials in Ireland is on the Irish War Memorials Site)
Prof. Mike Cronin is Academic Director of Boston College Ireland and a director of Century Ireland