Michael Palin reveals the shocking truth that soldiers continued to be killed in battle after the First World War armistice had been signed.
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On a windswept hill in Northern France
stands one of the great memorials to the dead from the First World War.
It was a war which affected almost every family in Britain,
including my own.
But even after the Armistice was signed, on 11 November 1918,
the terrible reality was that
soldiers continued to be killed in battle.
90 years on, I'm going on a journey
to tell the story of the last day of World War I.
Of the general who sacrificed lives storming a town,
simply so his troops could have a bath.
That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties,
many of them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason.
Of the sometimes forgotten victims.
And you can see that the whole of the side of the face has been
-literally just taken off.
-Yes, just ripped out.
-And yet he was still alive.
-He was still alive.
Of the men who would die in the instants before peace.
He was hit by a single rifle bullet,
fell and died two minutes before the Armistice.
There's his. There's his grave, your grandfather's grave.
'And how, 90 years later, that sense of loss still prevails.'
-It's very emotional.
Probably the first relatives to visit.
This is the story of how the war which was meant to end all wars
finally came to a close.
Just after five o'clock on the morning of 11 November 1918,
a moment of global significance was about to occur.
In this forest north of Paris,
the two sides in the bloodiest conflict the world had ever known
faced each other for a final showdown.
Hidden in the trees here at Compiegne was a railway siding.
On it, the personal train belonging
to Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch.
Three days earlier, a German peace delegation had arrived here.
And during the small hours of Monday the 11th,
inside Foch's carriage, they agreed the terms for a ceasefire -
It was at this table in Marshall Foch's private train
that the two opponents met. The Germans on the left here,
the British and French facing them on the right.
A member of the British delegation noted the Germans being very quiet,
very servile and, by the end, cringing.
At ten past five that morning, the two sides signed,
bringing to an end the First World War.
Within 30 minutes of the signing,
the news was flashed around the world that the War To End All Wars
was now, finally, over.
Although the Armistice had been signed, the war was not yet over.
It still had six hours left to run.
Despite the celebrations on streets across the globe, the ceasefire
would not come into effect until 11am,
so that troops on the front line would be sure of getting the news
that the fighting had stopped. At least, that was the plan.
What actually happened that morning was not the expected peace,
but more of the bloodshed and slaughter that had happened
on an almost daily basis
for the previous four years of the First World War.
For four long years the war had raged, as the armies of Britain,
France, Russia and their allies fought Germany and hers.
The slaughter was on an industrial scale.
The conflict had become gridlocked in trench warfare
along a static line known as the Western Front.
From the border of neutral Switzerland in the south,
the Western Front snaked its way
450 miles northwards to the Belgian coast.
For Britain, World War I had started over Belgian neutrality,
so it seemed fitting that this is where it would end.
On the 10th of November, British and Canadian troops
led by General Sir Arthur Currie
reached the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons -
a town that had been occupied by the Germans for the past four years.
And with the Armistice approaching, it was from Mons,
where the British had been forced to retreat in the opening weeks
of the war in August 1914, that some of the final casualties would occur.
The village cemetery at Nivelles on the outskirts of Mons
is like any other in this part of Belgium, and yet, within it,
there are nine white headstones which tell a remarkable story.
These are British war graves and, er...
these four, by chance,
are an Englishman, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Scotsman.
Different nations, perhaps, but they share one thing in common -
all of them died on the last day of the war, 11th of November 1918.
And just here... That's the extraordinary thing
about a place like this is there are five more British graves,
and all these died
at the very beginning of the war, in August 1914.
So there you have separated by about five or six feet
a war of four years and nearly a million British lives lost.
Amongst the graves of the four soldiers killed
on 11th November 1918
is Harold Walpole, from Geddington in Northamptonshire.
In the seven months he had been in France, he was wounded three times.
The third time, in the retaking of Mons, was to prove fatal.
Harold Walpole was just 19 years old.
But how many other soldiers like Harold Walpole actually died
on the last day of the First World War?
The harsh reality is that headstones engraved
with the date 11th November 1918 are far from rare occurrences.
They are to be found on graves all around Mons,
and much further afield as well.
The graves and memorials of the British and Commonwealth soldiers
who died in the First World War
are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The records of those who died
are held at the Commission's headquarters in Maidenhead,
and among them are those who died on 11th of November 1918.
We are talking about First World War here alone.
1.1 million Commonwealth servicemen and women dying,
and there is a huge amount of corresponding paperwork
that's necessary to commemorate them.
Even amongst the chaos and carnage of war,
the details of deaths were painstakingly recorded.
By looking just at the 11th of the 11th, 1918,
we get a figure of 863 Commonwealth servicemen and women
dying on the very last day of the war.
It's a sobering thought that 863 British and Commonwealth servicemen
died on the last day of WWI, but, of course, many of them
were dying of wounds sustained days, weeks, even months earlier.
One of those 863 soldiers who died on 11th November 1918
was Private Lewis Williams, from Charlton Kings in Gloucestershire.
He was the last of three brothers to die in the war.
1918 had been a costly year for Britain and her allies.
It had started badly in late March
when the Germans launched one last offensive with which
they hoped to finally break the deadlock of the Western Front.
The offensive during the spring of 1918 was really designed
to end the war before the Americans could arrive in sufficient strength
to tip the balance in the favour of the Allies.
They often termed it the "last card" or "last gamble".
There was a real recognition that their manpower would
probably run out sometime in 1918,
and that they had to use this last opportunity
to try to force the French and the British to capitulate.
On the first day of the offensive - the 21st of March -
German forces ripped a hole 60 miles wide,
advancing 40 miles deep into the British lines.
It was the biggest territorial gain either side had made
since the opening weeks of World War I.
And then, at the point of defeat,
the Allied commanders rallied their troops.
Douglas Haig, a general who is renowned in history
as being inarticulate, as not having a great connection with his troops,
issues his so-called "backs to the wall" order,
that says that you'll be facing a crisis situation,
the Germans are about to break through, we're facing defeat.
Everybody has to fight - our backs are to the wall.
The gamble had almost succeeded.
But weakened by their own losses, the Germans were first held,
and then pushed back in July on the River Marne.
And then the second moment, the 8th of August 1918,
the British launched an attack at Amiens -
the so-called "black day of the German army".
From this point onwards, the Germans went from attack to defence,
as the Allies forced them back over
the ground they'd recently gained.
They would never recover.
By the summer of 1918, the German army is
really starting to fall apart.
They've suffered extremely high casualties
in their offensives throughout the spring and early summer.
They are literally starving as well. The Allied blockade is
really sort of biting into German Army and into the German society.
The Allied naval blockade was not only biting into the German Army,
it was affecting the German people too.
This photograph of a dead horse being butchered in a German street
shows the length the half-starved civilian population was driven to.
But what Germany had most feared was already happening -
the arrival of American soldiers who called themselves the Doughboys.
The Americans come in a flood tide.
Almost every other day, a troop ship is landing in France
and it's disgorging 10,000, 15,000 Doughboys. They're arriving
at a rate of 300,000 a month and this is just overpowering.
The sheer numbers of the Americans make clear the hopelessness
of the situation for the Germans and it tips, er...
the decision of the war in the Allies' favour.
The British and French had wanted the fresh American troops
absorbed into their armies to replace their ever-mounting losses.
But General John Pershing, the leader of American Forces, refused,
insisting that American troops would fight
as an independent army under his command.
The Allied Armies co-ordinated their counterattacks
along the front line, with Pershing and his American forces
converging on an area west of the River Meuse.
It was here in the Argonne Forest in the east of France
that the real fighting for the Americans began.
In the first four hours in action here in autumn 1918,
the Americans sustained more casualties
than on the whole of D-Day in World War II.
It seemed that Pershing and his generals had failed to heed
the lessons learnt by their allies in the preceding years of the war.
The Americans fought the same early battles all over again,
above-ground advances, and they took punishing, punishing losses
in the months in which they were engaged towards the end of the war.
'In the Argonne Forest, there is still evidence of the bloody battles
'in the autumn of 1918. Local historian Jean-Paul de Vries
'has been walking this ground for the past three decades.'
On this position, just with a few machine guns,
you can hold everything. Because it's high, you are well entrenched.
And was this trench taken eventually by the Americans?
It's been taken, yes. It took them three days and a lot of casualties,
hundreds of men fell by taking this ridge.
But they took it after three days. 32nd Division took it.
This photograph shows the Kriemhilde trench
not long after the Americans captured it that autumn.
It had been taken, but with heavy casualties.
That is a very, very steep hill
the Americans had to come up to take this position.
And they were thousands and the Germans were just hundreds.
And they stopped them for three days.
This wasn't the only hill taken?
No, they already had about 20 hills before they came.
They still have 20 to go.
And each year you can come back, because each year...
'This field close by was once part of the American battleground.
'Since the end of the First World War,
'it has remained completely undisturbed.
'Now it's giving up its iron harvest.
'The earth here groans with unused munitions. Every turn of the plough
'reveals yet more evidence of bitter fighting.'
There are detonators. I don't pick them up, cos they are too dangerous.
-You have one there.
-And you've got one.
So if you... Those could explode?
-They could explode.
-So actually, just ploughing this field,
as they have done now, that must be pretty dangerous?
-Look there. Bullet clips. All American clips.
Cluster of clips. God, look at that.
'Unfired rounds from American rifles litter the field 90 years on.'
There you've got a piece of shell. Shrapnel you call it, I think.
-You can still see the screwing lines for the head.
Can I have a look at that? One hears so much about shrapnel.
Now, that is heavy.
And this is coming a few hundred kilometres at you.
Yeah. Imagine a shard of that going into you.
You see here, you've got the American quarter.
'In 30 years, Jean-Paul has found over 40,000 artefacts
'from the First World War - all within five miles of his home,
'and now on display in his museum in the village of Romagne.'
You've got all this stuff in front.
And this looks...
Wow, can I just feel this?
It's heavy, you can feel the weight of it.
-No, it's American. US17, they called it the P17.
It's an Enfield rifle, the sister of the English Enfield.
-It's almost become a part of the countryside, like some wood.
-You've got the bolt and everything.
-It's been 90 years in the water.
-People's boots. Look at these.
-They come out of the fields.
And to find a pair of boots in the field, I think it's not a good sign.
-That's an American army boot, is it?
-Yeah. Very bad shape.
This is a nice one, because I don't like wars.
This canteen is marking - "GW Flint. No Good For Shit."
This was, er...
It was the lid of the mess tin.
-This is the mess tin.
You've got normally your fork, knife and spoon in there.
This one has been hit and you can see the shell, through and through.
That is the extraordinary thing. Just an ordinary,
almost domestic object, just for keeping you alive,
for eating your food, has got that scar of the war.
If you're missing this, there's something wrong.
-You're wounded or you're dead or I don't know what it is.
This is what I like very much. It's Colgate shaving sticks.
-Colgate and Company.
-New York, USA.
-It's still used each day.
-And they look like something rather nice
and kitschy you'd get in a store. But these were in someone's kit.
This one's too complete to be thrown away.
They would have shaved.
I mean, they might have been killed a couple of hours later.
As the autumn of 1918 wore on,
the Allied armies continued to force the Germans to withdraw.
So we shouldn't really think of this last period of the First World War
as being like the trench warfare that we normally think of and
normally associate with the middle years of the First World War.
This is what's called semi-open warfare.
So, although parts of the German Army are still resisting quite hard,
particularly specialist machine gunners, artillery units,
a lot of the German Army is in full scale retreat.
The British are trying to keep contact with it,
cos they don't want a chance for another defensive line to be formed.
But that's precisely what happened
just seven days before the war ended. The Germans formed up
along a 20 mile stretch of the Sambre-Oise Canal,
a natural defensive barrier to the Allies' advance.
Nothing much has changed beside this French canal in 100 years.
It looks almost exactly as it would have done
on the morning of November the 4th 1918 when, along this stretch,
began the last set battle of World War I.
A contemporary aerial photo from the time
shows the objective for one group of soldiers that day.
An isolated lock house, called simply "Lock Number 1".
It's a building which still stands to this day.
'Military historian Paul Reed has interviewed
'over 300 British veterans from World War I,
'some of whom fought here that November morning.'
So what happened, exactly, here?
Well, this particular point, Lock Number 1,
got the lock house here and the lock in front of us.
The 2nd Royal Sussex, supported by Engineers and Australian Engineers,
-crossed the flat ground.
-Why did they attack here, a German position?
The tempting thing here was the lock, because it's much narrower.
And it's a very strong lock, so you could actually support
a proper bridge later, to get wheeled transport across.
-Artillery across and so on.
-They were virtually defenceless.
-Absolutely no cover at all.
One of the machine gunners from the Sussex rushes to the far lock gates.
He opened fire with his Lewis machine gun
straight up into the building.
And that burst of fire silenced temporarily German machine gunners,
enabling them to drop the bridges on this narrow gap here.
At the point of the bayonet, they rushed the remaining Germans.
The German defence buckled under that sort of pressure.
What were the losses during the battle?
There was just over 30 men killed here, about 120 wounded.
And the killed included three Australians who became
the last Australians to be killed in action on the Western Front.
The Australian "sappers" Barrett, Johnson and Corporal Davey,
now lie in a small cemetery less than a mile from where they fell.
By 8am on the 4th of November, the canal had been crossed,
and along the entire front,
the Germans pushed back a further two miles.
But for the British, this last set battle of the war
had come at a heavy cost.
More men went over the top here
than on the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916
when so many were killed. The casualties here were much smaller.
But even then, nearly 2,000 British soldiers
gave their lives on the front line that day,
including a 25-year-old lieutenant from the Manchester Regiment -
the war poet Wilfred Owen.
In the years following his death,
Wilfred Owen's poetry would symbolise what many considered
to be the cruelty and the waste that was the First World War.
With hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war taken by the Allies,
the German Army was now on the brink of total collapse.
Back in Germany itself, revolution was afoot.
Soldiers and sailors mutinied and deserted,
leaving the remnants of the army with the unenviable task
of fighting the Allies on one front and their own people on the other.
Faced with disaster, the German government despatched
civilian representatives to negotiate a ceasefire
with the Allied commanders in France.
On Thursday, November the 7th, French soldiers
on the front line near La Capelle witnessed the extraordinary sight
of several large German cars bearing white flags emerging from the mist.
Inside the cars was a peace delegation, and leading the party
was the German politician Matthias Erzberger.
They're driven through this devastated countryside.
The German delegation believes they're deliberately taken
on this roundabout journey to show them the devastation
France has suffered under German occupation.
When the cars reached Homblieres,
the Germans were then transferred to a train.
And, with the blinds pulled down to ensure secrecy,
they proceeded to its final destination -
a gun siding in the forest of Compiegne.
Here, they would come face to face
with Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch.
When the German delegation first met Foch in his railway car,
Foch was extremely cold to them.
The first words out of his mouth are, "What do you want from me?"
The Germans said, "We are here to negotiate an Armistice."
And Foch said, "There will be no negotiation.
"If you're here, you're here to receive terms from me."
The very sensible suggestion by Matthias Erzberger,
the head of the German delegation, was,
"We're meeting here on November 8th. We don't know when we'll conclude.
"Let's stop the fighting in the meantime."
Marshall Foch said no.
The French had sustained over six million casualties in the war.
Marshall Foch himself lost his son and son-in-law on the very same day.
He was in no mood for compromise.
The Germans returned to their train in the knowledge that Foch
had given them just 72 hours to agree to his terms.
But despite the expectations of a ceasefire,
the fighting would continue.
Pockets of German soldiers
continued to offer stiff resistance to Canadian troops
who'd fought their way through Northern France and into Belgium.
On November the 9th, the Canadians launched an attack on Mons,
a town the Allies had been driven from at the very start of the war.
The Canadian Corps was probably one of the most respected formations
on the Western Front in terms of British or Allied formations.
It had a reputation by the fall of 1918 of
always getting the job done and they tended to be thrown
into the line at the places where really the shock troops were needed.
Leading the Canadian Corps was General Sir Arthur Currie,
one of Field Marshall Haig's most successful generals.
They're met with machine gun fire, artillery fire, with snipers.
There are Germans resisting in the city.
There are Canadians who are wounded and killed
on the 10th and in the early hours of the 11th.
Early that morning,
Currie was to receive the news that he was waiting for.
His Canadian Infantry Brigade
had captured Mons during the night of the 10th and 11th of November.
As fighting over Mons concluded,
at Compiegne, the negotiations were reaching their climax.
The Germans' chief negotiator, Matthias Erzberger,
was under increasing pressure to sign.
Erzberger has to telegraph the terms back into Germany.
And he receives a reply from the High Command in Spa, which says
that they are to accept any terms, because the situation is so grave.
These messages are sent back in the clear, they're uncoded.
The Allies read the messages
as they're coming into the German delegation,
and they realise the German delegation has no choice
but to accept any demands that they put forward.
Despite the almost inevitable capitulation of the Germans,
some of the American generals were determined to continue fighting
that day with the same ferocity
that had marked the previous four years of the war.
One of those generals was Charles Summerall.
General Summerall sent his men,
beginning around midnight of the 11th, to cross the Meuse River.
The Meuse on this day was cold, it was icy,
and in the middle of the night,
his troops are cobbling together these rickety pontoon bridges,
and they are sent across to the other side,
where the Germans are posted with their machine guns,
their artillery, their sharpshooters,
and these men crossing the Meuse on the last day of the war
are picked off like ducks in a shooting gallery.
We're in the American sector, overlooking the Meuse River,
which was crossed on the morning of the 11th of November 1918
by the United States Marine Corps,
in conditions very similar to that last morning of the war.
The Marines scrambled their way down through the trees here,
coming out into the open ground that led down to the river bank itself,
and they reached the bridges that the engineers had made for them
and the conditions themselves in crossing the river were appalling,
with machine gun, shell fire dropping all around them,
and one veteran recorded the differing noise
of the machine gun bullets
as they first struck the water and the wooden planking,
and then the thud, thud noise as they hit the bodies of his comrades,
who began to drop around him.
American troops had suffered over 1,100 casualties
crossing the Meuse River that morning.
Meanwhile, back in the Compiegne forest,
the negotiations had reached their climax.
The Armistice terms dictated by the Allies were severe.
Foch told Erzberger that Germany must evacuate Belgium and France,
They were to hand over prisoners of war,
and a huge quantity of their munitions,
from battleships to U-boats, from artillery to machine guns...
..while all the time,
the crippling Allied blockade of Germany would continue.
After three days of negotiations,
Marshall Foch had conceded virtually nothing.
The Germans decided the time for talking was over.
And at ten past five on the morning of November 11th 1918,
the two sides signed.
No photographs of the signing exist.
Just this one image of the British and French military delegation
standing outside Foch's carriage at Compiegne.
Immediately, signals were sent to troops in the field
that the Armistice would come into force,
but not until 11am that morning.
Jubilant newspapers around the world splashed the news
that the Armistice had at last been signed,
and the war was now effectively over.
This meant in Paris that work crews were sent out
to light the lamps that had been out
since the war's beginning in the City of Light.
In England, you have Big Ben tolling for the first time in four years.
And in America, you have people pouring into the streets
upon this news, banging pots and pans.
You have firehouse sirens shrieking.
You have factory whistles blowing.
There's only one catch, and that is, this war is not over.
It's going to run another six hours.
Some generals were prepared to let their men stand easy,
bide their time for the remaining six hours.
They were not going to send men to die
in the last hours of the war to gain territory
that these men could walk into peacefully after 11 o'clock.
But it had been no great secret that the American commander
General John Pershing had been unhappy about the Armistice.
You might think that the fact that this war is ending
would mean that the lives of his men would be saved
would be satisfying to him. He took a longer view.
Pershing wanted to see the Germans driven back to Berlin,
and to end the war on their knees,
not on their feet in an unconditional surrender,
and he said at the time, rather prophetically,
that they won't believe now that
they were beaten if we do a ceasefire,
and we'll just have to do this all over again.
Some of Pershing's generals were still prepared to send men
into action, knowing that the Armistice had already been signed.
You had generals who saw a fast-fading opportunity,
even these last six hours, for victory, for glory,
for promotion, and they sent their men out of the trenches
with an hour to go, a half hour to go.
And, in some cases, 15 minutes to go.
One of the more contentious decisions made that morning
happened here on the River Meuse
at the French town of Stenay, which was held by German troops.
General Wright with the 89th American Division had heard
that there were bathing facilities available in that town,
and he concluded that, well, my troops are tired, they're exhausted,
they're dirty, we'll take Stenay,
and then they can refresh themselves.
Well, that lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties.
Many of them battle deaths for an inconceivable reason.
Stenay would be the last town taken by the American troops
in the First World War.
This photograph shows American soldiers,
the survivors of that attack,
in the town centre a few minutes before the 11 o'clock ceasefire.
But Stenay wasn't an isolated incident.
Soldiers on all sides would continue to go into action
right up till the last minute.
As the hours and minutes ticked away towards the Armistice,
the ceasefire at 11 o'clock,
who were the last soldiers to die in World War I?
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
gives a name to the soldier
believed to be the last British battle casualty
of the First World War.
Killed on patrol on the outskirts of Mons,
his name was George Edwin Ellison.
So we know very, very little
about the life of Private George Edwin Ellison.
What we can tell you is that he was in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers.
That he's buried in St Symphorien Cemetery.
And we can give you the plot, row and grave number.
As a person, George Ellison has remained almost totally forgotten
since the day he died,
so we have tried to build up a picture of his life.
We know that George Ellison was born in 1878, and at some stage,
joined the army as a regular soldier.
By the time he was married in 1912,
he had left the army and become a coal miner.
On the outbreak of war in August 1914, he is recalled to the army,
and joins the 5th Lancers at the age of 36.
What we do know about George Ellison's war
comes largely from this thing called the National Roll of the Great War.
A compilation of all those involved in the Great War
made up from interviews with their families afterwards,
and this is the Leeds volume, because he was from Leeds.
And here we see him listed, Ellison, G E, Private,
5th Royal Irish Lancers.
It tells us that after serving at the outbreak of war,
he was a serving soldier when war began,
he went to France and fought in the retreat from Mons.
He also played a prominent part in engagements at Ypres, Armentieres,
La Bassee, Lens, Loos and Cambrai.
But was, and here they just use this very sort of hard
but bland understatement,
"was unhappily killed,
"only an hour and a half before the Armistice came into force."
And a quote rounds it off. "The path of duty was the way to glory."
The thing that strikes me about Ellison's career
is how it spans the war,
and how his war began, really, in Mons,
and ended four years in Mons, the very, very last day of the conflict.
Amongst the Commonwealth War Graves records,
there is the mention of a son, James Cornelius Ellison.
James was just five days short of his 5th birthday
when his father was killed.
It's just along up here...
'James Cornelius never visited his father's grave.'
You don't know much about him.
-'James' two daughters, Catherine and Marie, have come
'to Mons for the first time to see where their grandfather is buried.'
There's his grave, your grandfather's grave.
Probably the first relatives to visit.
-That's quite something, isn't it?
-It is. Yeah.
-It's very emotional.
An hour and a half before...
That must have been terrible for my grandma.
-To hear about it at the very end of the war.
We hear that peace has broken out, and then later, you get the message.
-I suppose she was looking forward to him coming home.
-We have found a picture of him from the paper.
-I can't believe that!
-We haven't got any photographs.
-Here you are.
-Just a reproduction.
Looks like me dad.
Did your father know much about his father, and how he died?
Did he talk about it much to you?
-No, no, because I don't think he knew much about it,
to be quite honest with you.
My grandma mentioned him to me.
Usually, Remembrance Sunday, she used to get upset.
Did she talk about him at all?
Yes, she just said he was a gentleman,
and we seem to think he was fair,
-because she said that I looked like him.
Whether or not it's true...
It's just marvellous seeing his grave and an actual photograph.
We've never had a photograph of him.
40-year-old Private Ellison may have been the last British soldier
killed in action, but he wasn't the last combat death of the war.
As the final minutes ticked away until the 11 o'clock deadline,
still more soldiers were to die.
The last Frenchman to be killed in the First World War
officially died at ten minutes to the Armistice.
That's ten to 11.
He was a man named Augustin Trebuchon,
and he was in the 415th Infantry Regiment at a place
called Vrigne Meuse, which is up on the River Meuse near Sedan,
and he was a runner.
That meant he carried messages from place to place,
and he was taking a message to say that the Armistice
was going to come into force at 11 o'clock,
and at 11.30, there would be hot soup available
in the dug-outs by the canal.
And he was killed carrying the message.
40-year-old Trebuchon from Lozere in southern France
was one of 75 French soldiers killed in action on that day.
In the churchyard where he's buried,
his death is actually dated 10th November.
All the men who were killed on the 11th had their deaths backdated
to the 10th, possibly to avoid any question
about whether a pension should be paid or not,
possibly that the government didn't want families to know
that they were still sending men into battle
right up to the very end of the war,
and so a decision was taken to change the date.
But all these men have a date of 10th November.
'But as the clock moved ever closer to 11,
'there were even further battle deaths to record.
'Canadian soldier George Lawrence Price was to lose his life
'in the closing minutes of the war
'beside this modern bridge which is named after him,
'yet again, on the outskirts of Mons.'
So the fighting was really going on,
quite organised fighting, right up till the ceasefire at 11, then?
It was, and here, on the outskirts of Mons,
the Canadians were moving up the ground here in an urban environment.
There's no trenches here.
But they knew that the Armistice was going to come into effect.
Their officers ordered them to keep on fighting?
Right up to the last minute. Find out where the German are.
There was a machine gun here
that had been firing across onto Price's battalion.
When they got here, the machine gun had gone.
The Germans, whoever were manning it, had bolted.
Him and his mates were talking to some of the Belgian civilians.
They were thanking them for liberating Mons
after four years of occupation when a single shot rang out.
Price fell. The Belgian civilians
who he and his mates had been chatting to
a few minutes before assisted in carrying him into the building.
And one young lady ran across the street to assist.
Maybe she had some medical skill or something.
As she got there to assist, it was too late.
The minutes ticked away.
Price succumbed to his wounds,
and died two minutes before the Armistice.
The last Commonwealth casualty of World War I.
50 years later, George Price's comrades returned to Mons,
and erected a plaque in his memory close to where he was killed.
George Price is buried in St Symphorien Cemetery,
just yards from where the British soldier George Ellison
is also buried.
But even at two minutes to 11, George Price's death
wasn't the last before the Armistice came into effect.
Near the village of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers,
here in the Argonne,
American troops launched one final attack.
We're above Chaumont.
We're on the hillside above, the Vetin Hill,
and we're looking down over a wide valley
towards a line of hills on the other side,
which is where the American troops were
on the morning of 11th November.
One of the battalions had been given the order to attack east.
The order came in at 9.30 in the morning,
and they didn't know, at that time,
when the Armistice was going to take effect.
Among the troops was Private Henry Gunther, an American,
ironically of German origin.
Just with minutes to go,
Gunther and other Doughboys
are advancing on a German machine gun position.
The Germans are horrified by this.
They know that this war has minutes to run,
and they're waving these Doughboys back.
Gunther keeps advancing.
He's killed, he's shot through the head, dies instantly.
He becomes the last formal American death recorded in World War I,
and he died at 10.59.
Henry Gunther's divisional history records that, almost as he fell,
the firing died away, and an appalling silence prevailed.
The fighting was over, the roar of the guns had ceased, as if by magic.
At 11 o'clock, a German machine gunner
opposite the South African Brigade north of Mons,
having fired off his last round of ammunition, stood up,
took off his helmet, bowed, and walked off to the rear.
After 1,568 days, the Great War, as they called it then,
was finally over.
CHEERING AND TRIUMPHANT MUSIC
As the troops celebrated, artillery was muzzled for the last time.
Soldiers symbolically buried the last German "dud shell."
But even as American and German troops fraternised,
there were still tragedies to come.
Very probably the last German casualty of the war
was killed after the ceasefire,
when an officer, Lieutenant Thomas, approached American troops
who were unaware that the Armistice now had come into force.
Thomas wanted to inform the Americans that his troops
will be vacating housing that they have been in
for the last months of the war,
and this will be available to the American troops now.
Unfortunately, he's walking on a group that didn't get the word.
This happens invariably in war.
There is always somebody who doesn't get the word,
and he was shot afterwards,
and very likely, and maybe symbolically,
should be viewed as the last German casualty.
Back in Britain, Queen Mary reflected on the Armistice,
describing it as "the greatest day in the world's history."
While the bells rang out in Shrewsbury,
the parents of Wilfred Owen received the telegram
informing them of their son's death seven days earlier.
But for one group of soldiers, those wounded on the final day of the war,
there would be weeks, months,
perhaps a lifetime of suffering to follow.
Those who survived long enough to make it back to Britain
often ended up here in Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup, Kent,
where some of the most horrific facial injuries were treated.
What sort of injuries were you seeing
coming into Queen Mary's at the very end of the war, the Armistice time?
I've got a set of notes here of a chap who was admitted here
just before the Armistice, in fact,
and his name is Thomas, of the 1st Cheshire's,
and you can see that the whole of the side of the face
has been literally just taken off.
-Just ripped out?
-And yet he was still alive.
He was still alive, and conscious.
One wouldn't have thought that was possible.
Well, as long as it doesn't take off a major artery,
then he's not going to bleed to death.
When were these pictures taken, how soon after the injury?
Ah, this was taken about two weeks after the injury,
and this is actually dated 6th of November,
and so we know he would have been here
at the time of the Armistice itself. And as you go through,
looking at the reconstructions,
just watch the dates, we're now into 1921,
and a whole series of tubes and flaps are being raised,
and then, when we get to August 1922,
we've recreated the upper lip,
and then you bring down a last flap to recreate the nose.
And at the very end,
this is what you end up with, our guy is now presentable.
-Put his face back, really.
What do you feel about the way the wounded,
-and that side of the war is seen?
Perhaps one of the things that really bothers me
about the way that we look at war,
and perhaps even the First World War in particular is
we only focus on the glorious dead, and in a sense,
we're not allowed to see the people who have been disfigured
in the way that Private Thomas was disfigured,
and if we don't look at that sort of thing,
how can we possibly understand what war was really all about?
No-one will ever know for certain
how many soldiers died on that final morning of the First World War,
but one nation in particular
suffered more battle deaths than the others.
25 miles north of Verdun in France
is the American Meuse-Argonne military cemetery.
With over 14,000 graves of US soldiers killed
in the closing weeks of World War I,
this is the biggest American war cemetery in Europe.
Despite its vast size,
this only represents one third of those
who were originally buried here.
Two thirds of American servicemens' families chose to bring the bodies
of their loved ones home,
including the family of Henry Gunther,
the last US soldier to die in the First World War.
Ah, now this is the grave of Curtis Southern.
The same regiment as Henry Gunther.
Also died on the last day of the war.
It's one of over 100 crosses in this cemetery
which bear the date November 11th, 1918.
But when you consider how many of the Americans originally buried here
were repatriated home,
the number of crosses bearing this date
should have been considerably greater.
Official US figures reveal that America suffered nearly
3,000 casualties on the final day of the war.
They were casualty figures which the American public back home
found unacceptable, and resulted in a Congressional hearing
on the actions of the American commanders that day.
The initial report found that there had been a dereliction of duty
by officers who sent men to die for yardage
that they could have walked into peacefully the following day.
In the end, the report was suppressed,
essentially because it was felt that the Americans had been victorious,
they'd been led by these generals,
and it would be a stain on their name and on their honour
to publish these results.
General John Pershing, the bullish leader of the American forces,
was unrepentant about the huge number of casualties that morning,
giving a robust defence
to the Congressional investigating committee.
General Pershing was not at all apologetic.
He felt that the war had to be continued until the very last minute
because, in his judgement,
Germany had to be proven to have been defeated,
and if it had been up to him,
they would not have stopped fighting in a ceasefire at all,
he would have pushed on all the way to Berlin,
and demanded an unconditional surrender.
It would be seven months later in June 1919
at the Treaty of Versailles
when the First World War would officially come to a close.
But for one German soldier,
the signing of the Armistice at the railway carriage at Compiegne
was an act of national betrayal.
Adolf Hitler had been a corporal in the German Army in World War I,
and when he learns of the Armistice, he bursts out into tears,
he's shattered that his country has lost the war,
and he claims in Mein Kampf that at this point he said,
"I will devote my life to erasing that shame."
In June, 1940,
following the fall of France at the start of the Second World War,
Hitler symbolically returned to that same railway carriage,
in the same location,
where, in a ceremony full of Nazi pomp and theatre,
he accepted the French surrender.
NEWSREEL NARRATION IN GERMAN
The forest of Compiegne played a pivotal role in two world wars.
The Armistice of 11th November 1918
may have brought an end to the first round of slaughter,
but even so, some estimates
put the figure of those soldiers killed, wounded, or missing
on the last day of World War I in excess of 10,000 people.
The shocking numbers of those killed in the final hours of World War I
doesn't even include those who would have died of their wounds
days, weeks, months later.
In the end, does a death on the last day of the war...?
Is it any worse than a death on any other day of the war,
like that of my great uncle Harry Palin,
who was killed in action on the Somme, September, 1916?
When all's said and done,
November 11th 1918 was like any other day of that brutal war -
a day of slaughter, bloodshed.
A terrible waste of life.
Michael Palin tells the story of how the First World War ended on 11th November 1918 and reveals the shocking truth that soldiers continued to be killed in battle for many hours after the armistice had been signed. Recounting the events of the days and hours leading up to that last morning, Palin tells the personal stories of the last soldiers to die as the minutes and seconds ticked away to the 11 o'clock ceasefire.