The final hours of World War One: The bloody end to the conflict

On Sunday, it will be one hundred years exactly since the end of the war meant to end wars. The First World War cost up to nineteen million lives and still resonates to this day.

The Armistice and the treaty that followed saw Germany take the blame and agree to make reparations. The last payment was made as recently as 2010.

While it’s common knowledge the war ended at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, what’s less well known is just how bloody the end was.

When the German delegation first arrived at a railway siding forty miles north of Paris to begin peace talks on November 8, 1918, they suggested an immediate ceasefire take effect.

A German delegation met French and British commanders in a carriage to negotiate the end of the war. Credit: ITV News

The supreme allied commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch of the French Army, refused. Had he agreed, 6,600 lives would have been spared.

As it was, the Armistice was signed in Foch’s railway carriage just after 5am on November 11.

While the war was over on paper, the official end would be at 11am. During that six hour period there would be almost 11,000 casualties - men killed, wounded or listed missing.

Horrifyingly that’s more than there would be on D-Day in World War Two.

That so many men fell fighting a war already won by the allies is a scandal and a tragedy. When all they had to do was do nothing, some commanders couldn’t resist attacking the Germans right up to the last minute.

If Marshal Ferdinand Foch of the French Army had agreed to an immediate ceasefire, 6,600 lives would have been spared. Credit: ITV News

Artillery units continued to loose off shells. They thought it preferable to get rid of ammunition by firing it than have to lug it off the battlefield when the war was over.

On the Allied side it was the Americans who lost the most men that morning. Their commander John Pershing was opposed to the Armistice. He wanted to pursue the Germans all the way to Berlin.

The last allied soldier killed was an American, Pte Henry Gunther. Of German ancestry, he felt there were question marks about his loyalty.

So at the bitter end he continued to advance towards an enemy position even when the Germans gestured to him to stop. He pressed on and was shot dead at 10.59am.

Quite literally, had he waited a minute the war would have been over.

Many artillery units continued to be fired until the final moments of the war, some because soldiers preferred the idea of firing ammunition rather than carrying it off the battlefield after the war. Credit: ITV News

The St Symphorien cemetery outside Belgium is far from the largest of the many cemeteries beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on what was the Western Front.

But it is one of the most interesting.

There are both German and Allied graves and those who lie there include the first winner of the VC and the last Commonwealth soldier killed – Pte George Price of the Canadian Corps.

There is something even more compelling though. In a quiet corner just ten feet apart are the graves of the first and the last British soldiers killed in the war.

Pte John Parr was killed in August 1914. Pte George Ellison died ninety minutes before the Armistice took effect on November 11, 1918. Their headstones face each other.

In the six hours after the Armistice agreement was signed, before 11am, there were 11,000 casualties. Credit: ITV News

Their close proximity is purely by chance. The concept of first and last didn’t arise until long after they were laid to rest at St Symphorien.

Their headstones bookend the other 750,000 British soldiers killed in the war. The number of casualties after the Armistice was signed is a shock to this day.

Travel to the war graveyards and you won’t find any French headstones dated November 11, 1918.

The French were so embarrassed by the losses that last morning they marked their graves November 10 instead.

  • Watch John's full report in On Assignment, broadcast on ITV at 10.45pm on Tuesday 6 November