Remembrance Day in Europe: The last soldier

Three years after their first visit, Halifax Magazine editor Trevor J. Adams and photojournalist Tammy Fancy return to Belgium to cover events marking the centenary of the end of the First World War. Look for their reports throughout the next six days. 

You may leave Nova Scotia, but you never stop being Nova Scotian. So it’s fitting that George Price’s legacy includes a piece of Belgium that is now forever linked to his home province. 

George Price

Price was born in Falmouth and moved on to Saskatchewan to work as a farm labourer before the army conscripted him in 1917. He was an ordinary infantryman, on a scouting mission near enemy lines on the day the war-ending armistice was to take effect. It was 10:58 a.m., just two minutes before the peace began, when a German sniper in Mons, Belgium shot him dead.

His death was another in First World War’s endless roster of horror, unremarkable except for the fact that had he stepped into the spot three minutes later, he probably would have survived the war.

That quirk of fate, however, means that Price’s memory lives on in the Belgian town. My inner cynic wondered if this story really means much to Belgians. It means more than I imagined. Canadian flags festoon Mons. Schoolchildren learn Price’s story. The local elementary school is named for him, as is a bridge. In the heart of the city, an evening illumination show shares his story.

Today, hundreds gathered at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery where he rests. It’s one of the few military cemeteries where Commonwealth and German soldiers are buried side by side, indistinguishable in death. During this morning’s service, German, British, Canadian, and Belgians gathered to lay wreaths and mark the sacrifice of Price and the countless other fallen.

In the afternoon there was a ceremony honouring him in particular, on the site of a new memorial. Dignitaries included the Governor General of Canada and the Prime Minister of Belgium. Hundreds of Belgians stood patiently in the damp cold for hours as speakers opined and laid wreaths.

But it wasn’t really, or at least not exclusively, about Price. He was a month shy of his 26th birthday. Had he escaped the war unharmed, he would have returned to the farm and only his descendants would know his name. He lives on as symbol. His cruel death, two minutes before peace, underlines the banal brutality of war and the fragility of life.

Photo: Tammy Fancy

Two minutes. That’s the difference between life or a sudden, brutal death. Price didn’t seek glory. Fate forced him to become a symbol of war’s dehumanizing pointlessness. It’s the only good that came out of the war for him. It’s more than thousands of others got.

For more about Price and his story, see the new 12-minute documentary George. 

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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