Several interesting facts stand out in a recent story by the British publication The Independent about the first British death of World War I, that of Pvt. John Parr, a bicycle scout who was killed by German troops in southern Belgium on Aug. 21, 1914:
- Parr was the first British combat casualty in western Europe since the Battle of Waterloo, nearly 100 years earlier;
- He was just 16, having lied about his age when he left his job as a golf caddy at the North Middlesex Golf Course north of London in the summer of 1913; and
- Parr was the first of approximately 1 million British Commonwealth soldiers who died during the 1914-18 conflict.
Even more remarkable is that by the time Parr fell, tens of thousands of Belgian, German, Russian, Austrian and Serbian soldiers had already died, the first wave of death in a struggle that would claim more than 10 million lives.
Perhaps not surprising in a war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still reported as missing in action nearly a century a later, Parr’s family didn’t receive confirmation of his death until after the cessation of hostilities more than four years later.
In fact, for many months, the British Army failed to report that Parr was dead or even missing, according to The Independent.
“His mother, Alice Parr … finally wrote a letter complaining that she had not heard from her son for months. The War Office replied curtly saying that it could not help,” according to the publication. “It was not until after the war that a soldier who had been on the same bicycle scouting mission finally confirmed the time and place of John Parr’s death.”
In an odd bit of irony, he lies approximately 20 feet from George Ellison, another British Expeditionary Force soldier.
Ellison was also sent to western Europe with the first wave of British troops, as part of the Royal Irish Lancers, in August 1914.
Unlike Parr, Ellison survived the war’s early chaos, taking part in the British retreat to the Marne, where the French and British finally blocked the German’s initial advance, and was among the first British troops to fight in trenches in late 1914.
“He may have witnessed the first use of poison gas by the Germans near Ypres in April 1915. He fought in the Battle of the Somme, in which the first tanks were used, in July to November 1916,” according to The Independent. “He is believed to have been wounded at least once but recovered to take part in Allied advance to the Belgian border in the summer and autumn of 1918.”
Tragically, at 9.30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918 – just 90 minutes before the armistice that would end the war went into effect – Ellison was shot through the head by a sniper while scouting on the edge of Mons.
John Parr was the first British soldier to be killed; Ellison was the last.
The fact that Parr and Ellison are buried so near one another was not a deliberate choice by the (British) Commonwealth War Graves Commission, according to the publication.
“When they were buried, their ‘first’ and ‘last’ status was unknown,” according to The Independent.
(Top: St. Symphorien Cemetery in Belgium: John Parr’s headstone can be seen in the foreground while that of George Ellison is on the extreme right. Photo credit: The Mirror.)
(HT: Remembering 1914)