George Edwin Ellison: Leeds’s own tragic First World War hero honoured in Belgium

George Edwin Ellison.
George Edwin Ellison.
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He was an ordinary British soldier who had the terrible fate of being the very last of his countrymen to be killed in action in the First World War.

Private George Edwin Ellison, a married father-of-one from Leeds, was shot dead just 90 minutes before the Armistice on the outskirts of the Belgian city of Mons when he should have been preparing to return home to his wife and young family after four years of fighting.

A century on, the people of Mons have joined three generations of his family in remembering Private Ellison and his Canadian brother-in-arms George Lawrence Price - the last Commonwealth soldier to die - at the tree-covered cemetery of Saint Symphorien where they both lie.

READ MORE: Plaque unveiled to honour tragic First World War soldier from Leeds

By an extraordinary coincidence, Yorkshire man Private Ellison is buried just a few yards from Londoner John Henry Parr, who was the first British soldier to die in one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Their deaths were separated by the loss of 750,000 British soldiers.

Among those gathered as a bugler played the Last Post were two of Private Ellison’s great-grandchildren, Oliver and Nicola, and his great-great-granddaughter, Ayda, aged just 20 weeks.

“It’s lovely to see so many people here and very special for three generations of our family to be here,” his granddaughter, Marie Ellison, who was at the service with her sister Catherine and five other members of the family, told i.

“It’s an emotional day. We’ve been to Mons a few times over the years. It feels like a second home. Now it’s time to pass the baton on to the younger ones now.”

An autumn breeze snapped at the lance pennants of six soldiers from the Queen’s Royal Lancers, the descendant regiment of George Ellison’s 5th Royal Irish Lancers, and a raindrops began to fall on the Portland stone gravestones as a lone Canadian piper played a lament.

“I’m just really proud to be her and represent the regiment. George Ellison was one of our own,” said Connor Bilsland, 20, the youngest of the troop who has been in the Army just eight months. “Many of the soldiers buried here were as young as me - some of them even younger.”

Amid the silent hush that fell over the cemetery under a leaden sky, one young British soldier from the troop suddenly collapsed and had to be carried away for medical attention.

Those gathered, who included the former Brexit Secretary David Davis, listened as young people from Mons read out a pledge to “carry the torch and never forget” before the UK Ambassador to Belgium, Alison Rose, laid a wreath at Private Ellison’s grave.

Canadian Diana Abel, whose son Corporal Michael Abel died in Somalia in 1993, read from a letter by a solder who on hearing of the Armistice said: “It sounds too good to be true.”

The 45-minute ceremony came to a close after the Canadian, German, British and Belgian anthems were played by a military band.

An old Belgian soldier wearing a green military cap saluted and loudly sang every line of his nation’s anthem.

“The people of Mons are so grateful for what soldiers such as Price and Ellison did for us,” Maria di Pietrantonio, a retired first corporal chief who served in the Belgian Army for 37 years, told i.

“Some people don’t understand the value of freedom. It’s the most important thing in the world. We need to ensure that we keep it.”

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery lined with pines, maples and beech trees at the edge of farmers’ fields not far from Nato’s headquarters is unique in containing the graves of 229 Commonwealth and 284 German graves.

It was donated by a wartime landowner who said it could be used as burial place on condition that soldiers from both sides would be buried together.

Those buried with Parr, Ellison and Price include Maurice Dease, the first posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross of the First World War, and Oskar Niemeyer, the war’s first Iron Cross winner.

Julie Payette, Canada’s governor general, said in a speech watched by ranks of kilted Canadian soldiers and sailors from HMS Alfred, who were there to represent British sailors who fought in land battles on the Western Front, that those gathered must work together to build a better world.

“It is so fitting that the owner of this land gave it on condition that the dead from both sides be buried together. In life they were bitter enemies, but in death they lie together. It’s important that we are here to remember them.

“It was supposed to be the end end of all wars. In their memory, we must try to work together to build a better world.”

Among the graves can be found a German soldier, Rheinhold Dietrich, lying side by side with a British soldier, Captain Kenneth Roy of the Middlesex Regiment.

Staff Sergeant Peter Knoeringer of the German Army, who was among a delegation that included the German ambassador to Belgium, told i: “This is an important place. We need to make sure we don’t forget them.”

As the ceremony came to and end, June Barkhouse, 85, the wife of George Price’s nephew, 89-year-old George Barkhouse, could be found standing beside his grave.

“All these men died,” she said. “To come here and see all the graves is overwhelming. It makes me feel so bad. War is stupid and it doesn’t solve anything.”

Buried together in Mons: The first and last to die

John Henry Parr was born in Church End, London, He was just 17 when he died near Obourg, a village to the north-east of Mons, on 21 August 1914 and is recogised as the first British and Commonwealth soldier killed in action.

The son of a milkman, he worked as a butcher’s boy and then as a golf caddie before joining the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in 1912 aged only 15, but claiming he was 18.

On 21 August, he and another cyclist scout were sent to Ogburg to locate the advancing Germans. He is believed to have been shot and killed after encountering a German cavalry regiment.

George Edwin Ellison was born in Leeds and was a married father-of-one who had been in the regular Army before working as a coal miner before the First World War.

He served in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers as part of a cavalry brigade commanded by General Gough. Ellison first saw action in Mons in 1914 and went on to fight in the battles of Ypres and Loos.

After surviving four years of war, Ellison was patrolling in some woods near Mons when he was shot and killed at 9.30am on 11 November 1918- just 90 minutes before the Armistice.

George Lawrence Price was born in Nova Scotia and worked as a farm hand before he was drafted into the 210th Canadian Infantry Battalion in 1917.

He took part in the capture of Monchy-le-Preux and Wancourt before surviving a gas attack on 8 September 1918.

Price was at Ville-sur-Haine near Mons on 11 November 1918 after the declaration of the Armistice. He and a friend, Arthur Goodworthy, decided on their own initiative to go on patrol with five men to search houses on the far side of a canal.

He died at 10.58am after being shot by a German sniper as he left a house - two minutes before the Armistice.