Two soldiers linked in death by a bizarre coincidence
They are two of the countless graves dug for the victims of the Great War. But, in a bizarre quirk of fate, they contain the bodies of the first and last British soldiers to perish in that bloody conflict
In a beautiful, wooded cemetery at the end of a suburban lane in Belgium, the body of John Parr, from Finchley, North London, rests a few paces from the body of George Edwin Ellison from Leeds.
Between their graves there lies seven yards of lawn and, chronologically and metaphorically, the bodies of all the other British soldiers – approximately 800,000 men – who died in the Great War.
Private Parr, 16, a bicycle scout, and Pte George Ellison, 40, of the Royal Irish Lancers, were, respectively, the first and the last British soldiers to die in combat in the First World War. Pte Parr was killed on 21 August, 1914, the day before the first rearguard action fought by the British Expeditionary Force near Mons on the Belgian-French border.
Pte Ellison was killed on the morning of 11 November, 1918, 90 minutes before the armistice which brought the industrial-strength slaughter of the first modern war to a close, 90 years ago next Tuesday. Both died within a couple of miles of the spot where they are buried. Their memorial stones face each other across a narrow strip of grass in a cemetery which contains more than 500 British, Irish, Canadian and German graves.
When you visit the Saint Symphorien cemetery, just east of Mons – one of the most beautiful and moving of all the many First World War cemeteries – it seems obvious that the placing of the two graves was deliberate. It is a wry and moving tribute to the fact that, for the British Army, the Great War, "the war to end all wars", began and ended in the same place.
The Independent has established that the placing of the graves was not deliberate. The fact that John Parr and George Ellison lie facing one other, overlooked by pine trees and surrounded by rose bushes and cotoneasters, is a poignant and macabre accident of fate. At our request, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which does such an extraordinary job in maintaining military cemeteries all over the world, checked its records.
"It is a pure coincidence," said Peter Francis, spokesman for the commission. "John Parr's body was placed where it is now by the Germans in 1914. George Ellison's body was brought to the Saint Symphorien cemetery from a temporary burial place after the war. Our records suggest that Pte Ellison was simply buried in the next available space. It was not then realised that he was the last British soldier to die in combat. Nor was the fact that Pte Parr was the first British soldier to die established until later."
The proximity of the two graves – and the life stories of privates Parr and Ellison – encapsulates the history of the First World War. On the eve of the 90th anniversary Remembrance Day, their stories can perhaps stand for those of the 800,000 British soldiers – and six million soldiers on all sides – who died between August 1914 and November 1918.
Both men were regular soldiers and part of the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 120,000 men – a "contemptible little army," according to Kaiser Wilhelm II – which was shipped to France in August 1914. John Parr is listed in the cemetery register as 20 years old. Recently unearthed evidence suggests that he was just 16. He had lied about his age when he gave up his job as a golf caddy at the North Middlesex Golf Course in Friern Barnet Lane and joined the Middlesex Regiment a year earlier.
The caddy's war lasted less than a day. Pte Parr never fought in the Great War. He never knew the First World War of trenches, of barbed wire, of mud, of poison gas or aircraft and of tanks. He never knew the kind of fighting in which 29,000 British soldiers could be killed in one day (the first day of the Somme). He never even wore a tin helmet (first issued to British troops in September 1915). He was shot by advancing German troops as he scouted, on his bicycle, ahead of the deploying British Army on 21 August 1914. No picture of him has ever been found.
George Ellison, a former miner, married with a small son, was old enough to have been Parr's father. He was already 36, and had probably been a regular soldier for more than a decade, when he was posted to France with the BEF in 1914. He survived the retreat to the Marne, where the French and British finally blocked the German advance. He was among the first British troops to fight in trenches in late 1914. He may have witnessed the first use of poisoned gas by the Germans near Ypres in April 1915 and fought in the battle of the Somme, in which the first tanks were used, in July to November 1916. He is believed to have been wounded at least once but survived to take part in the collapse of trench fighting and the Allied advance to the Belgian border in the summer and autumn of 1918. Very few of the original foot-soldiers of the BEF were still alive and fit to fight by the time the Armistice was signed at 5am on 11 November 1918. Pte Ellison was one of them.
For reasons that remain controversial to this day, it was agreed that the fighting would continue for another six hours until the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. An American historian, Joseph E Persico, has estimated in a recent book that there were 11,000 casualties, either killed or wounded, in fighting between the German and Allied armies on that final morning.
Pte Ellison, who had survived so much, was one of them. He was shot by sniper while part of a patrol scouting on the edge of Mons – about two miles from where he is now buried – at about 9.30am on 11 November. Did he know that the war was just about to end? Did the sniper know? Almost certainly, both did. Word of the approaching armistice had gone around the fighting troops like wildfire. They, nonetheless, carried on fighting, in some places ferociously, to the end.
In Mons, the shooting and shelling had almost finished by the time that Pte Ellison died. There were, however, further casualties among the Canadians who were fighting a little to the west. Pte George Lawrence Price, 25, of the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade, was shot through the head at 10.57am, the last British Empire soldier to die. He is also buried at the Saint Symphorien cemetery, only 20 yards from privates Parr and Ellison.
The cemetery is deeply moving for other reasons. It was begun by the Germans after the fighting of August 1914. They buried German and British soldiers in groups, side by side, in a maze-like spiral, with a stone memorial to both the armies on top. (Nothing so magnanimous would have been possible later in the war.)
Saint Symphorien is rare in having almost equal numbers of German and British Empire troops buried there (284 German and 229 "British", including many Irish and Canadian soldiers.) They include one of the first British VCs of the war and the first German soldier to win an Iron Cross.
The visitors' book at Saint Symphorien is crowded with recent entries, as are the visitors' books of most of the 2,300 British First World War cemeteries in France and Belgium. Mr Francis, of the War Graves Commission, recites some astonishing facts. Since the late 1990s, the 1914-1918 cemeteries have been more visited than ever before. The number of visitors continues to grow each year. The commission's website receives one million hits a month from people wishing to check information on relatives' graves. Great War enquiries outnumber Second World War by five to one.
Ninety years after the war ended, popular memory refuses to die.
The Saint Symphorien cemetery, despite its German majority, is maintained, in immaculate condition. Pte Parr, according to the commission records, was buried by the Germans where he now lies, close to the cemetery boundary, in August 1914.
For many months, the British Army failed to report that he was dead or even missing. His mother, Alice Parr, of 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley, finally wrote a letter complaining that she had not heard from her son for months. The War Office replied gruffly saying that it could not help.
It was not until after the war that a soldier who had been on the same bicycle scouting mission confirmed the time and place of John Parr's death. His claim to be regarded as the first casualty has been disputed by some historians. British sailors were killed a few days earlier when their ship was sunk by a mine in the North Sea.
He is, however, now accepted as the first of the approximately 800,000 British soldiers killed in the 1914-18 war – "approximately" because the official figures still list many of the soldiers as "missing", even now.
Pte Ellison was originally buried in a small battlefield cemetery near the spot where he died. During the 1920s, many of these small cemeteries were converted to permanent memorials and their wooden crosses were replaced by the now-familiar, engraved tablets of white Portland stone. Other bodies were, however, moved to larger cemeteries nearby.
Thus, Pte Ellison, "the last casualty", was placed, opposite Pte Parr, "the first casualty", some time in the early 1920s.
And so it is that John Parr and George Ellison, the first and last of so many, have lain together ever since. Purely by coincidence.