Private John Henry Parr

L/14196 Private John Henry Parr, a seventeen year-old former golf caddy from North Finchley who served with “D” Company of the 4th Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge’s (Middlesex Regiment), is currently regarded (though by no means universally accepted) as having been the first soldier of the British Expeditionary Force to have been killed by enemy action during the Great War. The story of how he died while scouting ahead of his Battalion on 21 August 1914 is a compelling one which has been retold many times. However there are many inconsistencies with the narrative that has developed over the past forty years, and it is these aspects that I wished to explore and investigate.

The Grave of Private John Henry Parr at St Symphorien Military Cemetery, photographed on 13 September 1992 (Author’s Collection)

It is by no means the first time that the story of Private Parr has been researched but instead of trying to offer yet another theory to provide an explanation as to how he was killed on 21 August 1914, I wished to critically examine the available evidence to try and find answers to two questions that I had regarding the prevailing version of events:

  • How Private Parr came to be recorded as having died on 21 August 1914
  • The evolution of the story regarding the circumstances in which Private Parr died

I feel that it is important to demonstrate the methodological approach that I employed for my research into both of the questions that I had posed myself, and also to cite the sources that I had used at each stage of the process. Therefore this article includes details relating to Private Parr but also of other soldiers who served with him in the 4th Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) in August 1914 in order to provide context to my investigation and how by researching them it aided me in trying to make sense of some of the issues that directly concern Parr’s story.

In order to investigate the first question it was necessary to refer to the original documents on which the date of death for Private Parr would have been recorded. Over the past twenty years the availability of documents online has made this task much easier. By chance, Private Parr’s service record, or what remains of it, is preserved as part of the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series held by the National Archive at Kew. Around 80% of the records stored at the War Office Record Store at Arnside Street in Walworth were destroyed by the Luftwaffe when incendiary bombs hit the building during the night of 7/8 September 1940, so to have access to even a part of Parr’s service record is a fortunate survival. These records had been transferred from the Army Records Office at Hayes and were originally released in batches from 1997 until 2001, and were then subsequently digitised and made available to view, by paid subscription, via online genealogy platforms.

At the time Private Parr served in The Middlesex Regiment these documents were held by the No. 10 District Record Office at Hounslow, which was also responsible for the administration of records for several other regiments.

Record Offices performed several functions with regard to the administration of an individual soldier’s service record:

• Attestations: On receipt of completed attestation forms, recruits would be allocated service numbers from the nominal rolls kept for soldiers who had enlisted for the Regiments for which they were responsible.

• Records of Service: The Record Office would make daily updates of soldiers’ records, entering details of postings between units, promotions, transfers to the Reserve or discharges on the termination of a soldiers’ period of engagement, details of next-of-kin and dependents, casualty returns, punishments and courses of instruction. This information would be reported to the Record Office by the individual regiments.

• Administration of Soldiers’ Accounts: Separation Allowances, bounties and gratuities were all recorded by the respective Record Offices and the information forwarded to the relevant authorities.

• Casualties: If a soldier was reported as killed in action, missing, wounded, sick or had been taken prisoner, the Record Office was responsible for conveying this information to their next-of-kin. The office also checked, packed and despatched any effects returned from the front for any soldiers who had died. Enquiries regarding widow’s pensions, the tracing of relatives if the information held on a soldier’s record was out of date, and the posting of wounded soldiers once they had been discharged from hospital were also the responsibility of the respective Record Offices.

• Discharges: The Record Office would issue discharge papers and forward documentation to various departments on the discharge of a soldier, as well as notifying the Royal Hospital Chelsea (or Royal Hospital Kilmainham, near Dublin) if they were entitled to pensions or gratuities.

As well as these tasks, the Record Office was responsible for the issue of medals, notifying the civilian authorities of deserters and dealing with them once they had been apprehended, the investigation of fraudulent enlistments and the receipt and safe-keeping of regimental War Diaries.

Additional documents were also made available online during the period of the commemorations of the centenary of the Great War. On 4 August 2014 the International Committee of the Red Cross released their digitised records relating to soldiers who had been taken prisoner between 1914 and 1918, including enquiries received from relatives concerning soldiers whom had been reported as missing. On 16 January 2015 the Register of Soldiers’ Effects 1901-1929, held by the National Army Museum, was made available to view by paid subscription on Ancestry.com following their digitisation.

The digitised newspapers made available to view, again by paid subscription, by The British Newspaper Archive since the launch of its online platform in November 2011 have further enhanced the original source material available to researchers without having to visit local archives and sift through pages in the hope of stumbling across a pivotal report or article.

In relation to the case of Private Parr, all of these documents provide interesting information regarding the recording of his date of death and the circumstances behind it.

What survives of Private Parr’s service record includes a letter written by his mother on 26 October 1914 to the Infantry Record Office at Hounslow, in which she stated that she had been to the War Office to seek news regarding the whereabouts of her son. Although at that time she had not received any official notification, Mrs Parr wrote that she had also received a letter via Berlin, from a comrade of her son who was a prisoner of war at Sennelager, which stated that Private Parr had been ‘shot down at Mons.’ Unfortunately the name of this soldier is not recorded in Mrs Parr’s letter.[1]

The first published instance of Private Parr being reported as having been killed featured in his local newspaper. His name was included in a list of “Our Honoured Dead” published in The Hendon and Finchley Times on 6 November 1914. However this inclusion was the cause of considerable confusion and, no doubt, distress to his family as they had at that point not received any official notification. Another letter survives in Private Parr’s service papers from his sister Alice, who also wrote to the Infantry Record Office on 11 November appealing for any information regarding her brother John. This uncertainty regarding his fate was reported by the same newspaper on 13 November:

“We regret that the name of Private John Parr, 4th Middlesex Regiment, appeared in our list of “Honoured Dead” last week. We were informed of his rumoured death, and enquiries from what we believed a reliable source confirmed from what we believed a reliable source confirmed that statement. We understand from Parr’s mother that she has had no official intimation from the War Office, and enquiries there elicit the reply that “as far as is known he was still with his regiment on October 20th.” None of his relatives have heard from him since he left England in August, and one of his chums, who is a prisoner in Germany, in a recent letter home, expressed his regret that Parr and two other Finchley men (the latter being reported as “missing” by the War Office) had “gone under.” Mrs Parr does not give up hope that he son is still alive. Perhaps some of our readers could give her some information?”

Mrs Parr wrote to the Record Office at Hounslow again on 23 January 1915 having received information from Captain Hubert Arthur Oldfield Hanley, then the Officer Commanding “D” Company of the 4th Middlesex, that her son had been missing since 23 August 1914 despite having been informed by the Record Office that as far as they knew from their records that Private Parr was still with the 4th Battalion when she first contacted them the previous October. This disparity in communication is perhaps understandable when considering the chaotic conditions following the fighting of 23 August 1914 and the losses suffered by the 4th Middlesex. In the case of “D” Company, in which Private Parr served, the Adjutant of the 4th Battalion, Lieutenant Thomas Stanley Wollocombe, recorded in his diary that 183 Other Ranks had been killed, wounded or reported as missing following the action around Obourg Station and the canal.[2] The Officer Commanding “D” Company, Captain Harold Edward Lepal Glass, and Lieutenant Alfred Barron Willmott Allistone had been wounded and they, together with Lieutenant Gilbert Carey Druce, were taken prisoner following the action while Captain Kenneth James Roy was killed. Only 32 Other Ranks from “D” Company were recorded to have returned to the main body of the 4th Battalion by the evening of 23 August.[3] Therefore there was little chance of recording accurate information regarding those soldiers reported as missing as there were very few of the original Company left.  The fragments of news that was received regarding those soldiers from whom nothing had been heard came from comrades who had been wounded or had themselves been reported as missing but were subsequently found to have been taken prisoner, and Mrs Parr also contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross to try and establish if her son was also being held captive in Germany.[4]

Mrs Parr was not alone in trying to find out what had happened to her son and many other families were engaged in their own quests for information. L/13072 Private Herbert Johnson, who also served with “D” Company of the 4th Middlesex, fought at Obourg on 23 August 1914 and no news had been received by his family as to his fate. Born at Hendon in 1891, Herbert was serving with the 6th (Special Reserve) Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and working as a butcher’s assistant when he attested on a Regular Army engagement at the Regimental Depot in Mill Hill on 27 June 1910. As in the case of Private Parr Herbert’s mother, Mrs Emma Hurling experienced considerable difficulties in trying to establish what had happened to her son as she had not received any official notification concerning him. An appeal for news was published in The People on 31 January 1915:

“JOHNSON. 13072 Pte. Herbert, 4th Middlesex Regt. – Anxiously inquired for by his mother. Any information will be gladly received. Write, Mrs Hurling, 5, Lowly Cottages, New Brent-at-Hendon, N.W.”

Eight months later Mrs Hurling had still not established what had happened to her son, and an article regarding this was published in The Hendon and Finchley Times on 15 October 1915:

“For some considerable time, now over twelve months, fears have been entertained as to the welfare of one of our Hendon lads, viz., Private Herbert Johnson (D. Co. 4th Middlesex Regiment). The absence of any news of him since August, 1914, has naturally caused the greatest anxiety to his mother, Mrs Hurling, of 5, Cowley-cottages, North-street, Hendon, and his friends. Enquiries of him have recently been made by Mrs Cassidy, of “Valetta,” Hendon, to whom the subjoined letter has been forwarded by the British Red Cross and Order of St John, and from this it would appear that Pte. Johnson has bravely laid down his life for King and Country. The letter referred to is as follows:-

“Dear Madam, – With reference to your request for information as to the above, who is officially reported as missing since August last, I felt in the absence of any direct information about him personally you would be glad to have such news as we have been able to obtain from one of his companions seen by our Searcher some little time ago in the Gare Maritime Hospital at Boulogne. Private W. Johnson, 1136 (sic), of the 4th Middlesex, D Company, says they arrived at Mons on the 22nd August late in the afternoon, that D Company was sent to relieve C Company at the station at Oberg (sic – Obourg) as C Company had gone on in front. They took up this position at the station on the morning of the 23rd and barricaded it, the Germans attacked at 9.30 a.m., shelling them and then advancing with very large numbers, but D Company kept the position according to their orders until about 4 p.m., losing all their officers and about 150 men. They then had only 32 men left and some of these had the duty of carrying back men. Finally our informant, who had gone with ammunition to the station, was one of the eight survivors who joined C Company who were in the trenches in front of Mons. The Germans finally captured the station, and then the great retreat commenced. Most of the men missing, our informant says, were killed, but a few were made prisoners. I am afraid now that so long a time has passed without news of Johnson’s name as a prisoner, it would be vain to cherish much hope, but if we do hear anything further you shall be informed. The stand which D Company made for many hours against overwhelming numbers is one of the bravest of the many brave deeds done by our men during the war. – Yours faithfully,

E. McC.

For Sir Louis Mallet.”[5]

With regard to Private Parr’s service papers two communications are recorded on the Army Form B103: Casualty Form – Active Service. The first, dated 7 March 1915, states that notification had finally been received by the Record Office from the Commanding Officer of the 4th Middlesex that Parr had been missing from 23 August 1914. The second entry is far more intriguing but, due to the damage caused to the papers during the fire at Arnside Street in September 1940, certain details are obscured or missing. This entry states that a list had been forwarded by the War Office, via an American Consul in Germany, compiled by Major H. W. Long R.A.M.C., the Medical Officer of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment who was taken prisoner on 23 August 1914, and he had stated that Parr was ‘dead for certain 23/24 August.’ Unfortunately I have not yet been able to locate the original list compiled by Major Long so the context in which he made this statement is not known. Both of these entries show evidence of having been examined at some point as the dates have been circled by an unknown hand. However, on Parr’s Military History Sheet the date 21 August 1914 appears twice, relating to his period of active service with the British Expeditionary Force, and again on the Army Form B278: Transfer of Documents, which states that he was ‘KIA 21/8/14.’ Another slip of paper that survives in Parr’s record also records the 21 August date and that he had been ‘Killed in action – Mons,’ but a previous entry for 23 August had been struck out. Unfortunately no other paperwork survives regarding how this date came to be recorded and there is no evidence from which an explanation can be ascertained. However, for ‘official purposes’, the date of 21 August 1914 was recorded on Parr’s entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects as having been accepted in April 1915, and the outstanding balance of his account, totalling £3.4.0, was forwarded to his father Edward, whom Private Parr had stated in his Will to be his legatee. The 21 August 1914 date of death is also recorded for Private Parr in Part 56 of ‘Soldiers Died In The Great War 1914-19’, which records the dead of The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) and published by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in August 1921 from rolls compiled by the War Office from information extracted from the Official Casualty List. This further indicates that the 21 August 1914 was considered to have been the date on which Parr had died ‘for official purposes.’[6]

Further evidence that the Parr family received notification that John had been killed is recorded in the local newspaper, The Hendon and Finchley Times. After his inclusion in the local roll of ‘Our Honoured Dead’ in November 1914 had caused his family considerable distress, his name did not appear again until 23 April 1915. Intriguingly the entry does not state that he was killed on 21 August 1914:

“PARR. Pte. John, 4th Middlesex; Lodge-lane, North Finchley. Killed in action at Mons, on August 23rd, 1914.”

Private Parr’s name featured weekly in the roll of honour published in the newspaper well into 1916.

In order to try and determine if the 21 August 1914 date had originated from German sources, I then consulted the digitised burial records relating to Private Parr which, since 2014, have been available to view for free on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.[7]

On referring to the Grave Registration Report Forms for those British soldiers who had died in 1914 and whose remains had been moved to St Symphorien Military Cemetery during 1917 by the Germans, I noticed that they did not appear to have had their dates of death recorded on the markers that were in situ at the time the British authorities began their work at the cemetery in 1920. I therefore decided to check for the records of those men who were buried in Row A of Plot I with Private Parr to see if any clues could be derived from what documents were available that indicated where the information regarding their date of death had come from.

The Grave Registration Report Form (Working Copy) for what became Row A of Plot I of St Symphorien Military Cemetery, dated 21 August 1920, has no dates of death recorded against those burials made by the Germans and these details have been entered by hand. However the burial of Private George Ellison of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, who was killed on 11 November 1918 and is recorded on the same sheet, is typed on the form as his burial details had already been recorded by the Graves Registration Unit.  The ‘Final’ Copy of the same document has the dates for the majority of the burials typed in.

Based on this evidence, it is my summation that in order to complete the task of recording the dates of death of those soldiers who had been buried by the Germans, the Graves Registration Unit had received this information from the relevant Record Office. For those soldiers who had served with the 4th Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment), the details would have been provided by the Record Office at Hounslow, while information on the men from the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment came from the No. 12 District Record Office at Cork. The information for Driver Edgar Towse was supplied by the Royal Horse and Royal Field Artillery Record Office at Woolwich.

In order to confirm that the source of the information was in fact the relevant Record Office, I undertook a search of the following records:

  • The Register of Soldiers’ Effects.
  • The relevant volumes of Soldiers Died In The Great War.
  • Prisoner-of-War records held by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
  • Surviving service papers for those individuals held in the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series.

Based on the information available from these records, I was able to determine when communications were received regarding when they were stated to have died and approximately when their families were notified.

The following details have been located for each individual:

Plot I, Row A

Grave 1:

L/14440 Private Albert Edward Eden                           4th Middlesex

Private Eden’s Service Records survives in the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series. Reported as Missing from 23 August 1914, from these documents it was found that Eden’s father was notified by a letter sent from the Record Office at Hounslow dated 8 July 1915 that they had received unofficial notification that he had died on 23 August 1914. On 1 September 1915 a further letter was sent by the Record Office Hounslow to the War Office asking if the unofficial notification of the deaths of Private Eden and L/14060 Private James Edwin Brown could be accepted for official purposes. The War Office confirmed that the information could be accepted in a communication dated 2 September 1915, and the outstanding balance of Eden’s account was sent to his father on 5 November 1915.

Grave 2:

L/7506 Private George Connor                                   4th Middlesex

Private Connor is recorded on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects as presumed to have been died on 23 August 1914 at Mons, notification having been received by the Record Office at Hounslow in November 1915. The date of death was not entered on the ‘Final’ copy of the Graves Registration Report Form dated 21 August 1920 but was subsequently added to the Headstone Schedule forwarded to Mr. J. W. Newman on the Isle of Wight to be inscribed.

Grave 3:

L/10144 Private Albert Victor Foote                                     4th Middlesex

Foote’s attestation papers for his previous service with the Militia survive in the WO 96 series held by The National Archive at Kew, but not those for his Regular Army service. His entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects states that notification that he had died on 23 August 1914 had been received by the Record Office in Hounslow in August 1915. The date of death was not entered on the ‘Final’ copy of the Graves Registration Report Form dated 21 August 1920 but was subsequently included in the Headstone Schedule.

Grave 4:

L/14535 Private Albert Charles Henry Hargreaves                  4th Middlesex

The Regular Army service record for Private Hargreaves survives in the WO 363 series, and from the details recorded it is known that he was reported as missing from 23 August in a list supplied by the Commanding Officer of the 4th Middlesex dated 11 September 1914. Hargreaves was unofficially reported to have killed in action on 23 August 1914 and notification of this was sent to his family by the Record Office at Hounslow on 8 July 1915. A further communication from War Office, that it had been presumed that Private Hargreaves was killed in action on 23 August 1914, was received by the Record Office at Hounslow on 31 July 1915, and the outstanding balance of his account paid to his mother Emily on 14 January 1916. The date of death was not entered on the ‘Final’ copy of the Graves Registration Report Form dated 21 August 1920 but was subsequently included in the Headstone Schedule.

Grave 5:

L/14064 Private James Edwin Brown                                    4th Middlesex

No service record for Private Brown survives, but it is known from communication preserved in the papers for Private Albert Eden that on 1 September 1915 the Record Office at Hounslow sent a letter to the War Office asking if the unofficial notification of the death of Private Brown could be accepted for official purposes. He is recorded in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects as having died on 23 August 1914 at Mons, notification being received during August 1915.

Grave 6:

L/8567 Private George Harris                                              4th Middlesex

It is recorded on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects that notification was received in May 1916 that Private Harris was presumed to have died on or since 23 August 1914.

Grave 7:

L/10232 Private Edward Aaron Hurrell                                 4th Middlesex

Originally recorded on the ‘Working Copy’ of the Graves Registration Report Form as an ‘Unknown British Soldier’, the remains were subsequently identified as belonging to Private Hurrell. There are two entries in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, the first recording that he was presumed to have died on or since 23 August 1914 and that notification had been received by the Record Office at Hounslow in December 1915.

Grave 8:

L/8222 Private Stephen Lawes                                             4th Middlesex

The Militia service record for Private Lawes survives in the WO 96 series, and the Register of Soldiers’ Effects states that notification was received by the Record Office at Hounslow in November 1916 that his death was presumed to have occurred on or since 23 August 1914.

Grave 9:

6520 Private William Walsh                                     2nd Royal Irish Regiment

Private Walsh had served with the 1st Battalion in South Africa during the Boer War and was reported as missing following the fighting on 23 August 1914. His mother made enquiries with the International Committee of the Red Cross, but the surviving record card includes references to another soldier of the 2nd Battalion, 8138 Private William Walsh, who was taken prisoner at Le Philly on 19/20 October 1914.[8]

His entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects states that No. 12 District Record Office at Cork received notification in February 1916 that the death of Private Walsh was presumed to have occurred on or since 23 August 1914. On the Working Copy of the G.R.R.F. for Row A of St Symphorien Military Cemetery the date of Walsh’s death was initially recorded as 19 October 1914, and this date was also repeated on the Final Copy of the same document. It can therefore be deduced that the Record Office at Cork had inadvertently supplied the Graves Registration Unit with information relating to 8138 Private William Walsh, as the date recorded corresponds with when that soldier was captured following the fighting at Le Philly. This error was subsequently spotted, as the 23 August 1914 date was included on the Headstone Schedule forwarded to Mr. J. W. Newman on the Isle of Wight.

Grave 10:

L/14196 Private John Parr                                         4th Middlesex

Grave 11:

L/7624 Private James William Gladman                4th Middlesex

There are two entries in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects relating to Private Gladman, the first indicating that the Record Office at Hounslow received information in November 1915 that he was presumed to have died on or since 23 August 1914 and that his widow Alice Maud Gladman was sent a payment of £3.1.0. on 20 March 1916. The second entry records that further communication was received in April 1916, and that the outstanding balance of his account, valued at £2.17.0, was forwarded to his widow on 3 July 1916.

Grave 12:

L/10555 Private Charles Lowen                                           4th Middlesex

Also initially recorded as an ‘Unknown British Soldier’ on the Working Copy of the Graves Registration Report Form, Private Lowen was identified on the ‘Final’ Copy of the G.R.R.F. By coincidence Private Lowen, who was a Reservist and had previously served with the 3rd Battalion, lived on the same road as Private Parr at 40 Lodge Lane in North Finchley and was posted to “D” Company following his mobilisation. His Militia attestation papers survive in the WO 96 series, as does a record card in the archive of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Lowen is stated to have died of wounds on 23 August 1914 on his entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects, and the Record Office at Hounslow received this communication during March 1915.

Grave 13:

L/9509 Private Thomas James Spence                                  4th Middlesex

The service record for Private Spence survives in the WO 363 series, and the Military History Sheet records that his death was reported by the Germans via American Embassy and Foreign Office on 4 November 1914. His Army Form 103 B also states that his name was included in List 10614 and that he died while in enemy hands. The date of when the notification of his death was received is recorded in The Register of Soldiers’ Effects and in Part 56 of Soldiers Died In The Great War, which indicates that this was accepted for use for ‘official purposes’ in lieu of further confirmation.[9] This date was also added to the G.R.R.F. for Plot I, Row A at St Symphorien Military Cemetery and is carved on the headstone for Private Spence.

Grave 14:

L/9898 Private Thomas Henry Haley                                    4th Middlesex

The Militia attestation papers for Private Haley survive in the WO 96 series. The record card held by the International Committee of the Red Cross notes that he served with “A” Company and that he was reported as missing on 15 August 1914, but this most likely indicates the date of his last communication with his family. The entry for Private Haley in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects records that in March 1919 the Record Office at Hounslow received notification that his death was presumed to have occurred on or since 26 October 1914 either in France or Belgium. The outstanding balance of his account was forwarded to his father Thomas on 13 May 1919. The entry for Private Haley in Part 56 of Soldiers Died In The Great War states that he had died of wounds. The date of 26 October 1914 is also carved on his headstone at St Symphorien Military Cemetery.

Grave 15:

Unknown British Soldier

On the Working Copy of the G.R.R.F., this burial was originally attributed to a Private H. Casey of the 4th Middlesex. However it was later discovered that L/8967 Private Henry John Caisey was actually buried at Mons (Bergen) Communal Cemetery, and the Final Copy of the G.R.R.F. entry for Grave 15 was amended to ‘Unknown British Soldier.’[10]

Grave 16:

8561 Private George Bellamy                                  2nd Royal Irish Regiment

The entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects for Private Bellamy records that he died in German hands on 26 August 1914, and that notification to that effect had been received by the Record Office at Cork in December 1914. The same date is recorded for Private Bellamy on a Roll of Honour of members of the Bradford City Police Force which was published in The Bradford Weekly Telegraph on 3 September 1915, which stated that he had been ‘killed in the German lines,’ while his entry in Part 23 of Soldiers Died In The Great War for The Royal Irish Regiment records him as having been killed in action on 26 August 1914.

Grave 17:

An Unknown Soldier of The Royal Irish Regiment

The burial was initially attributed to a soldier of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment and numbered ERK. M. No. 199 Z.R.J. on the Working Copy of the Graves Registration Report Form.

Grave 18:

Unknown British Soldier

This burial was initially identified as a Private Hander on the Working Copy of the Graves Registration Report Form.

Grave 19:

6968 Private Robert McLernon                                2nd Royal Irish Regiment

Private McLernon is recorded on the Register of Soldiers’ Effects as having been killed in action at Mons on 24 August 1914, notification having been received by the Record Office at Cork in February 1915. This date is also recorded in Part 23 of Soldiers Died In The Great War. The date initially recorded on the Working Copy of the G.R.R.F. was 23 August 1914 and was repeated on the Final Copy of the same document, but was amended on the Headstone Schedule.

Grave 20:

36978 Driver Edgar Towse                              23rd Battery XL Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

The service record for Driver Towse survives in the WO 363 series, and it is recorded that he was initially reported as killed in action on an unknown date, but following notification received by the Record Office at Woolwich from the Officer Commanding 23rd Battery on 20 September 1914 he was confirmed as having been killed in action on 23 August. Driver Towse was originally recorded as serving with The Royal Fusiliers on the Working Copy of the G.R.R.F. but his unit details were subsequently corrected.

Grave 21:

10700 Private James Healy                               2nd Royal Irish Regiment

Private Healy is recorded as having been presumed to have died on or since 6 September 1914, and his entry in the Register of Soldiers’ Effects records that the Record Office at Cork received notification of this in March 1916. Healy is stated to have been killed in action on 6 September 1914 in Part 23 of Soldiers Died In The Great War. This date was recorded on the Grave Registration Report Forms and subsequently carved on Private Healy’s headstone.

As can be seen from this sample study, a considerable amount of work was undertaken by the Graves Registration Unit in order to obtain further information regarding the burials made by the Germans at St Symphorien Military Cemetery, and this appears to confirm that they did indeed rely on communications with the relevant Record Offices in order to compile the dates of death rather than anything recorded on grave markers then in situ. In the case of Private Parr, his date of death was amended to 23 August 1914 on the Final Copy of the Graves Registration Report Form but was corrected to the 21 August date, which was then sent to Mr. J. W. Newman, a stonemason at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, on the Headstone Schedule for his work on the inscription to commence. With regard to Private Parr’s headstone, it is frequently repeated in press and social media articles that his age is also included. There is an amendment noted on the Headstone Schedule giving his age as 18, but the date on which this was done is not stated. Photographic evidence of Parr’s headstone from the 1970s and 1990s shows that it was not present during that time and the current marker also does not record his age.[11]

Having established that the source of the 21 August 1914 date of death recorded for Private Parr originated from information supplied by No. 10 District Record Office at Hounslow, I then began to check the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for any other instances where soldiers are stated to have died on the same date as a result of enemy action in France or Belgium.

8339 Private Robert Griffiths, who served with “C” Company of the 2nd Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment), is stated by the Commission as having died on 21 August 1914, but on consulting the Register of Soldiers’ Effects and Part 44 of Soldiers Died In The Great War he is recorded as having his death presumed to have taken place on 24 August. It is recorded in the War Diary of the 2nd South Lancashires that their positions on a low ridge between Ciply and Frameries were enfiladed after other units had been ejected by the Germans from Frameries, and that “C” and “D” Companies were forced to withdraw after suffering casualties.[12] Private Griffiths is commemorated on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial and the information can therefore be attributed to an error on the part of the Commission’s records rather than anything officially recorded.

However, the case of L/15220 Private Alfred Alexander Bradshaw, who served with 4th Battalion, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), has direct implications as to how Private Parr has come to be regarded as the ‘first’ British soldier to have been killed by the Germans while serving with the British Expeditionary Force.

Born at Rugby in Warwickshire in 1894, Alfred Bradshaw was working as a fishmonger when he attested for The Royal Fusiliers at Croydon on 11 July 1912. He disembarked with the 4th Battalion at Le Havre on 13 August 1914. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission state that Private Bradshaw died on 21 August 1914, as does his entry in Part 12 of Soldiers Died In The Great  War. Private Bradshaw’s entries in the Register for Soldiers’ Effects records that he also died on 21 August 1914 ‘in enemy’s hands’ and, more specifically that he died on 21 August whilst a ‘prisoner of war Mengieres (sic),’ while his details on the 1914 Star Roll also state that he ‘Died in enemy hands 21.8.14.’ Like Private Parr, Private Bradshaw is also included in Volume 2 of De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, which states that he “died as a prisoner of war 21 Aug. 1914, from wounds.”

However, on 21 August 1914 the 4th Royal Fusiliers were positioned at La Longueville and did not cross the Belgian frontier until the following day.

It is more likely that Private Bradshaw died, whilst a prisoner of war, at Feldazarett (Field Hospital) No. 3 at Maisieres from wounds received during the fighting on 23 August 1914, and that his date of death came from information supplied by his regiment’s Record Office. Originally buried Maisieres Communal Cemetery: Plot I, Row A, Grave 4, the remains of Private Bradshaw were exhumed in 1967 and moved to Cement House Cemetery near Langemark, where he was reburied in Plot XVIII, Row D.

If the same reasoning is applied to Private Bradshaw’s date of death as has been in the case of Private Parr, then there must have been at least two soldiers who were many miles forward of their Battalions when they were killed on the date which they are recorded as having been. If this information is to be accepted as correct as it is confirmed from official records, Private Parr would therefore no longer be considered in the unique circumstance for which he is commemorated now.

In April 1948 the remains of 256265 Private George Lawrence Price, who served with the 28th (North-West) Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force and was killed by a German sniper at 10.58 a.m. on 11 November 1918 in the village of Havre, were exhumed from Havre Old Communal Cemetery and reburied in Plot V, Row C, Grave 4 at St Symphorien Military Cemetery. It was noted at the time that Private Parr was recorded as having died on 21 August 1914, and with Private Price now being buried in the same cemetery an interesting situation had arisen. There is an undated note held in the archives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which alludes to this in a particularly pragmatic fashion in relation to updating the cemetery register:

“This cemetery is said to contain the graves of the first (Pte. J. PARR, Middx. Regt., 21.8.14) and the last soldier (Pte. J. L. PRICE, Can. Inf. 11.11.18) to be killed during the 1914-18 War.

Such statements cannot, however, be confirmed.”[13]

Another element that required investigation was to establish where Parr’s unit, the 4th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, was located on the day when he was recorded by official sources to have died. The 4th Middlesex War Diary entry for 21 August 1914 states to following:

“Monceau 21.8.14.

Reveille 4 a.m. Battalion assembled at 5.30 a.m. and marched to Bettignies about 15 miles, 15 casualties, 4 admitted to hospital.[14]

Bettignies 1.0 p.m. 21.8.14.

Battalion arrived & went into billets. Outposts 2 platoons D Company. Trenches dug by C Company for 2 or 3 Companies.”

As there is no mention in the War Diary regarding any bicycle patrols being sent forward on the evening of 21 August, as stated in the prevailing account of how Private Parr was killed, I consulted the published personal diary of Lieutenant Wollocombe’s to see if he had recorded any further details regarding the outposts that were deployed forward of Bettignies by “D” Company. He stated that:

“D” Company was the next to be moved. Two Platoons were sent to hold a cross roads about a mile and half away under Capt. Roy and a Platoon under Lieut. Druce was sent up the main road about a mile and a half to an inn, where they were quite comfortable for the night, to watch the road. We had a good dinner and the C.O. and Major Finch retired to bed.”[15]

Again, there is no mention of any bicycle partrols being send ahead of the outposts.

The War Diary for Headquarters 8th Brigade of 3rd Division, of which the 4th Middlesex formed part, also recorded the events of 21 August 1914 from their perspective:

“21st Aug.

5.30 A.M. Brigade formed advanced guard to 5 Division and marched northwards by main road through MAUBEUGE, being delayed for 1½ hours South of MAUBEUGE by 5th Cav. Bde. interposing on the road. On arrival at BETTIGNIES, 5 miles North of MAUGBEUGE, the Brigade went into billets with outpost line 2 miles to North and the East, in accordance with instructions from G.O.C. 3rd Div.”[16]

As the War Diaries for the 4th Middlesex and Headquarters 8th Brigade did not mention any patrols of cyclists being sent forward of their area on the evening of the 21 August, as is stated in the story of Private Parr, I also consulted the War Diary of the 3rd Divisional Cyclist Company. It is routinely stated that Parr was a ‘bicycle scout’, but there is no recorded evidence of him either passing a Course of Instruction to qualify as a Battalion Scout, or that he had been detached from the 4th Middlesex and posted to the 3rd Divisional Cyclist Company recorded on what survives of his service record. However, I decided to check the relevant unit War Diary in order to satisfy myself that I had not missed any important evidence in relation to the case of Private Parr. Unfortunately no detailed account of the activities during this period exists, only a brief synopsis being provided for the purposes of historical record:

“This Company was formed on May 29th 1914. On August 4th the Company was dispersed & Officers & men rejoined their units for Mobilization. On August 20th the Company, reinforced by 70 men from the Division, reformed at AULNOYE, in Northern France.”[17]

However, there is a reference to cyclists in an entry in the personal diary of Lieutenant Wollocombe for 22 August 1914:

“We moved off as part of an advanced guard to the Division, but the transport was not ready, so I stayed behind to bring it along. I only had to wait about 20 minutes and it came along. I told the Transport Officer to close up on to the Battalion at the next halt and also told him that, should we leave the main road, I would leave a man to bring him on.

This settled, I rode on to the head of the main guard where Battalion Headquarters were marching. We did not march far, however, for in about half an hour we had a halt signalled and we had to take up a long outpost line facing North-East. This line was to be taken up by the whole Division. It ran from Givry to Mons, or, to be more exact, to a little place North of Mons called Petit Nimy, through Harmignies, a front of about 10 miles. We got our orders and we were to hold the Northern end of the line, so we marched on with our own advanced guard. Our first excitement was that our outposts of the night before did not join us where they were told to, so we had to send cyclist orderlies after them.

Lieut. Druce with his Platoon joined us all right as they were on the main road, but the other two Platoons under Capt. Roy did not. One of the cyclist orderlies returned and said he could not find them and another was sent off. Apparently this one could not find them either for Capt. Roy joined us a little further along the road. He had mistaken his rendezvous. The orderly was not seen for three or four days, when he turned up again, though I personally cannot remember seeing him or even asking him what he had been doing, such was the bustle of those days.”[18]

This account by Lieutenant Wollocombe is very significant to the story of Private Parr and will be referred to again later in this post.

Despite Private Parr being recorded as having died on 21 August 1914 his regiment, The Middlesex Regiment, did not regard him as their first fatality due to enemy action for many years. His date of death was known to the Regiment, and in an article published in The Die Hards Journal of December 1948 a former member of the 4th Battalion, Oliver Taylor, was stated to have a list of all of the soldiers of the Regiment who were buried in and around Mons, which he used during his annual pilgrimage to the battlefield.[19] On that list, which is known to have been compiled by Georges Licomb, the co-founder of the Mons War Museum, is Private John Parr and his date of death is plainly recorded as 21 August. However, as far as The Middlesex Regiment was concerned, their first soldier to have been killed in action was for many years stated to be L/14301 Private William Arthur Merry.

The son of George and Mary Ann Merry (nee Knight), William Merry was born on 22 November 1893 at Tottenham and was baptised at St James’s Church in Upper Edmonton on 14 April 1895. He joined The Middlesex Regiment at Enfield in 1912 and at the declaration of war was stationed at Raglan Barracks in Devonport with the 4th Battalion. Private Merry disembarked at Boulogne with “D” Company of the 4th Middlesex on 14 August 1914. Nine days later he was in position at Obourg Railway Station when at around 8.00 a.m. they were fired on by troops of Infanterie-Regiment Graf Bose (1. Thüringisches) Nr. 31 approaching the canal. Private Merry was killed during this first clash, reportedly shot through the head while on the roof of the station. Originally buried close to where he had been killed, Private Merry’s remains were moved to St Symphorien Military Cemetery in 1917 and he is buried in Plot III, Row A, Grave 34, facing the memorial to the ‘Royal’ Middlesex Regiment that had been erected by the Germans.[20] As late as the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1974, the Regimental Association Pilgrimage that went to Obourg and Mons that year commemorated Private Merry as their ‘first killed.’[21]

In 1963 the story regarding Private Parr’s recorded date of death took another turn when a former soldier of the 4th Battalion, William Edward Beart, contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Head Office at Maidenhead to query why Private Parr was commemorated on his headstone as having died on 21 August 1914. Although Beart did not offer any further information, it was decided to investigate his enquiry and staff at the Commission referred to the original Grave Registration reports. The date of 23 August was noticed as having been entered on the Final Report dated 21 August 1920, and based on this information, and by consulting the War Diary of the 4th Middlesex, it was determined that it was more likely that Private Parr had been killed on 23 August 1914. The date on the headstone was subsequently amended, as can be seen by referring to the Headstone Schedule which can be accessed via Parr’s record on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website. There is no surviving correspondence regarding if William Beart was satisfied with this decision.[22]

William Beart will feature again in the story of Private Parr, therefore I searched for available information on him in order to place him into context.

In August 1914 William was L/14037 Lance-Corporal W. E. Beart. Born on 6 January 1896 at Paddington, William had been employed as telegraph messenger boy and lived with his family at 10 Litchfield Gardens in Willesden Green prior to attesting for the Middlesex Regiment on 6 April 1912. Unfortunately his service record does not survive but a précis of his military service can be constructed from information available from Medal Rolls and the Silver War Badge Roll. Beart was stationed at Raglan Barracks in Devonport with the 4th Battalion and had already been appointed a Lance-Corporal by the time war was declared, and he disembarked with “A” Company at Boulogne on 14 August 1914. Lance-Corporal Beart was reported as having been wounded in the Casualty List released on 30 September 1914.[23] Photographs of William that are still in the possession of his family show that he was qualified as a scout and bomber, and also that he had been wounded four times during his war service. He subsequently transferred to The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) and was issued with the regimental number 11665. Posted to the 16th (Home Service) Battalion, Beart later transferred to the Labour Corps, being issued with the service number 406936, and had been appointed an Acting Company Quartermaster-Sergeant at the time he was discharged as physically unfit for service, as a consequence of wounds, on 20 August 1919. Beart was later issued with Silver War Badge No. B287723 and was sent the Clasp and Roses for his 1914 Star on 13 February 1920.

It is known that William Beart served in the Territorial Army following the Great War, serving with the 3rd (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers) from 8 January 1924 until he was discharged on 22 October 1928.[24] At the time of his discharge William had already emigrated to Canada, having sailed from London on board the R.M.S. Ascania on 21 July 1928 for Quebec. He returned to England shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War with his wife Phoebe Rosina Beart (nee Mowatt), a fellow Londoner whom he had met and married in Canada in 1937, on board the R.M.S. Duchess of Bedford which had sailed from Montreal and arrived at Liverpool on 8 July 1939. The passenger ledger for the voyage stated that William had been employed as a wireless operator and that he and Phoebe intended to reside at 38 Aboyne Road in Neasden. He is stated in the 1939 Register as working as a teacher in Swindon, but the couple are subsequently recorded by 1945 to be living at Tatsfield in Surrey, where they resided at 13 The Square.

From information recorded in The Die Hard Newsletter of The Middlesex Regiment Old Comrades’ Association it is known that Beart went on the August 1972 Pilgrimage to Obourg and Mons, which was filmed by a B.B.C. film crew for a programme that was later broadcast that November. He also recited the Exhortation at St Symphorien Military Cemetery during the visit.[25] William Beart died in 1976 and his ashes were interred in the churchyard of St Mary’s at Tatsfield on 7 May.

In the same year that William Beart died, the first edition of a definitive and highly influential guide to the Great War battlefields was first published – Before Endeavours Fade. Written by Rose E. B. Coombs M.B.E., who had worked at the Imperial War Museum since 1946 and at the time of its publication in August 1976 was employed as its Special Collections Officer, her inclusion of Private Parr in the book was a watershed moment as subsequently his name became well-known and the story of how he had been killed gained traction. In the first three editions of the book, Private Parr is recorded as “one of the first, if not the first man to be killed in the war.” By the time that the fourth edition of Before Endeavours Fade was published in March 1983, the entry for Parr had altered significantly, and it was now “very probable that he was the first man to be killed in the BEF in the Great War.[26] His death on August 21, in the evening when he did not return from a scout mission with his bicycle has now been confirmed and a new headstone will soon replace that in situ (August 1982).”

This startling change in detail concerning the death of Private Parr, and the assertion that he had died while tasked as a scout several miles forward of where his Battalion was known to be located, even accounting for the two outposts that were at least a mile and half in front of the 4th Middlesex’ billets in Bettingnes, is intriguing as it is not supported by the written evidence from the Battalion War Diary, 8th Brigade War Diary, or in Lieutenant Wollocombe’s personal recollections.

In order to try and contextualise when Rose Coombs may have obtained this information, I referred back to the Die Hards Newsletters of The Middlesex Regiment Old Comrade’s Association to see if there was any information recorded. It is recorded in the Newsletter for November 1979 that Rose Coombs acted as guide to the Middlesex Regiment Association party that visited Mons and Ypres in 1979 and again to Mons in August 1980.[27] In his report of the August 1980 pilgrimage to Mons the Curator of The Middlesex Regiment Museum, Major (Retd.) Dicky Smith M.B.E. made mention of the two 4th Battalion veterans who had accompanied the group – Charlie Ashby, formerly of “B” Company, and William Wright, who had served in “A” Company – as well as other soldiers who were buried at St Symphorien Military Cemetery, but a reference to Private Parr is noticeably absent. However it would appear that the 1980 Pilgrimage was the catalyst for Rose Coombs to endeavour to try and establish an explanation as to why Parr was recorded as having been killed on 21 August 1914. In 1981 the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at Maidenhead received another enquiry regarding Private Parr’s headstone, this time asking why it stated that he had died on 23 August 1914 and not 21 August, as recorded in other sources. Unfortunately the name of the enquirer is not preserved, but the Commission wrote to Major Dicky Smith in order to obtain further information. Based on his communication, and on obtaining confirmation from the Army Record Office at Hayes that Parr’s service record stated that he had died on 21 August 1914, the headstone was again amended. This change of date, and the story of Private Parr riding off on patrol on a bicycle, had by then received official approval and was included in the fourth edition of Before Endeavours Fade published in 1983.[28]

1984 marked the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, and quite naturally the story of Private Parr being the first British soldier to have been killed by enemy action, as highlighted by Rose Coombs in her book, had already been taken notice of. In his narration for the B.B.C. Television coverage of the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, which that year fell on 11 November, Tom Fleming included the following commentary:

“On the same day his regiment arrived at Mons, the 21st,[29] Private Parr of The Middlesex Regiment set out alone on a scouting mission near this canal.[30] He was on a bicycle and he never returned. He’s believed to have been the first British soldier to be killed in the Great War.”[31]

However, there were already people who wished to obtain clarification with regard to the story of Private Parr being on a scouting mission at the time he was killed. John Tanner had made his first visit to Mons during the Summer of 1984 and, intrigued by the account of how Private Parr had been killed, had visited to then Public Record Office at Kew in order to read the War Diary of the 4th Middlesex. He noted that the War Diary also contained a transcript of the personal diary of Lieutenant Wollocombe and made the connection between the reference to orderlies being sent out on bicycles in order to bring in “D” Company’s outposts on the morning of 22 August and the account given regarding Private Parr’s death, as stated by Rose Coombs. In order to establish if he was correct in his assumptions, John wrote to Major Dick Smith in October 1984 and received the following reply:

“You are correct in linking Pte. Parr and the cyclist orderly in Tommy Wollocombe’s diary.

The other orderly was L/14037, L/Cpl. W. Beart, an erudite man and very observant (he had his 1st Class Certificate in Education as a young soldier), and he confirmed that ‘Ole’, as Parr was called by his comrades, never came back. He told me himself years later when I took him to Mons.

The original date was 21 (August), but was later blocked out as it was thought to be an effort by the stone mason.

The first man of the 4th Bn. to be killed in the battle was L/14301 Pte. A (sic) Merry, who was shot clean through the head whilst in position on the roof of Obourg Station, now, alas, no longer there.

Parr was given the nick-name on enlistment at Mill Hill – he was a Finchley man – the recruiting staff asked him if he was Old Parr, the oldest Englishman, who died at the age of 132. From then on he was ‘Ole’ Parr to his cockney comrades.”

The founder of the Western Front Association, John Giles, also had questions regarding the story of Private Parr and approached the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He raised the matter with Major (Rtd.) Stuart Campbell M.C., then the Director of Information at the Commission, who forwarded him a copy of the correspondence that had been sent by Major Dicky Smith in 1981. The text of the letter was reproduced in the Western Front Association Bulletin No. 013 of Spring 1985:

“Reference our telephone conversation about L/14196 Pte. John Parr, 4th Bn. Middlesex Regiment, recorded as killed-in-action 21 August 1914.

I have searched through the War Diary of the 4th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment, which reads:-

“21.8.14. Monceau. Battalion arrived and went into billets. Outposts 2 Platoons ‘D’ Company. Trenches dug by ‘C’ Company for 2 or 3 Companies.”

Brevity was the watchword in the 4th Battalion records. For instance the Battle of Mons is covered in five lines:-

“23.8.14. Mons. Battalion occupied Line from Obourg to Mons, about one and (a) half miles, entrenched as far as time would permit. Orders of Companies in line D, C, A, B, with half Coy. A in reserve. Battle commenced at 10.15 a.m., retirement started at 3 p.m. Battalion arrive at Novelle after dusk and bivouacked there.”

I have the personal diary of the Adjutant, Lieut. T. S. Wollocombe. The entry for August 22 reads, “Our first excitement was that our outposts of the night before did not join us where they were told to, so we had to send cyclist orderlies after them… One of the cyclist orderlies returned and said he could not find them and another was sent off. Apparently this one could not find them either for Capt. Roy joined us a little further along the road. He had mistaken his rendezvous. The orderly was not seen for three or four days, when he turned up again, though I personally cannot remember seeing him or even asking him what he had been doing, such was the bustle of those days.”

When the BBC made the documentary ‘A Meeting at Mons’, I took a coach full of our soldiers to Mons. One of these was L/14037 ex L/Cpl. W. Beart, ‘A’ Coy, 4 Middlesex, in 1914. An erudite man, and very observant, (he had his 1st Class Certificate of Education as a young soldier), he told me he was a cyclist orderly, and so ‘Ole Man,’ the name L/14196, Pte. John Parr was given on enlistment at Mill Hill. This is typical of the Tommy as you must know. The nick-name was given as Thomas Parr, known as Old Parr the oldest Englishman who died at the alleged age of 152.

Beart told me on this pilgrimage that he never saw ‘Ole’ again after the night of 21/22 August. He had a glimpse of Uhlans and returned to inform his superior officers.

I made a point of asking after Parr as the family was a local one – Finchley – and have had enquiries from the family. Beart was convinced that Parr never returned but must have become a casualty.

All the fatal casualties, both British and Germans were eventually gathered in from the various positions and re-interred, many in St Symphorien Military Cemetery by command of Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria, a chivalrous man. Parr’s headstone is there, but reads 23.8.14. The originals were wooden crosses, the writing on them in many cases illegible. L/14301 Pte. A. Merry, who was shot clean through the forehead whilst in position on the roof of Obourg Station, is there too. Whilst all the ‘D’ Company chaps who were at the battle were confident that Merry was the first battle casualty of that morning, they were always vague about Parr. Beart was not vague, he was positive.”[32]

The two letters written by Major Smith prove to be very enlightening with regard to how the story of Private Parr, as recounted by Rose Coombs from the publication of the fourth edition of Before Endeavours Fade, came to evolve. However, they also highlight the discrepancies in the evidence presented to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and also in what is recorded in the War Diary of the 4th Middlesex and Lieutenant Wollocombe’s diary.

  • While Lieutenant Wollocombe clearly stated in his diary that two bicycle orderlies were sent out on the morning of 22 August 1914 to bring in “D” Company’s outposts prior to advancing towards the positions allotted to the 4th Battalion around Obourg, Rose Coombs appears to have taken this information and, for want of a better term, manipulated the chronology and purpose of the task in order to place Parr riding a bicycle on a scouting mission during the evening of 21 August.
  • There is no evidence, recorded in the Battalion War Diary, 8th Brigade War Diary or Lieutenant Wollocombe’s account, that patrols on bicycles were sent out in front of the outposts established by the 4th Middlesex on the evening of 21 August 1914.
  • There is no evidence recorded on Private Parr’s service record that he qualified as a Battalion Scout.

With regard to the weight placed on the recollections of William Beart, it is difficult to reconcile much of the details that were recounted by Major Smith in his letters for several reasons:

  • As far as can be ascertained from articles published in The Die Hards Journal (and latterly the Die Hards Newsletter) written by Major Smith regarding the annual pilgrimages to Mons and Obourg in the years following the Second World War, Private Parr is never mentioned prior to the communication he sent to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1981, and no reference was made to the possibility of him having been the first man to have been killed from the 4th Battalion. This is particularly interesting as Major Smith stated that William Beart had spoken to him about Parr during the August 1972 pilgrimage, yet Private William Merry was still commemorated by the Regiment as their first fatality on the sixtieth anniversary of the battle in 1974.
  • According to Major Smith’s recollection of his conversation with William Beart in August 1972, Beart mentions that he did not see Private Parr after the night of 21/22 August 1914. Apart from there being an interval of 58 years, Lance-Corporal Beart served in “A” Company and Parr with “D” Company and from 22 August the two Companies were deployed at different locations around Obourg. Beart’s recollection of catching a ‘glimpse of Uhlans’ while on his bicycle cannot be substantiated from any evidence contained in the War Diaries and the dispositions of the British and German troops on 21 or 22 August 1914. If he had reported this information to his superior officers, as suggested by Major Smith, it would have been a significant piece of intelligence regarding enemy troop movements that would have been rapidly relayed to 8th Brigade Headquarters and then to 3rd Division and II Corps.
  • In his letter to John Tanner in 1984, and the correspondence sent to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1981, Major Smith states that Beart was “an erudite man, and very observant, (he had his 1st Class Certificate of Education as a young soldier)”, the perception, and perhaps implication, being that because he was considered to be better educated and more articulate than his comrades and that his recollections, although made many years after the event, should be given far more credence as a result.
  • As William Beart had died in 1976, his memories of Private Parr could not be checked. In addition to this, an earlier communication to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 1963 sent by Beart querying the date then recorded on Parr’s headstone – 21 August 1914 – seems to indicate that he felt that this was incorrect, yet eighteen years later he played a part (posthumously, and quoted second-hand by Major Smith) in the case of changing the date again from 23 August back to 21 August 1914.

In the Summer 1985 Bulletin of The Western Front Association, Colonel (Retd.) Terry Cave C.B.E., then Historical Information Officer for the organisation, cast his eye over the evidence presented to John Tanner and John Giles and concluded that:

“It does not seem to me a practical proposition that a battalion would send out scouts, even on bicycles, miles ahead; they would have had to pass through Allenby’s cavalry screen to come under enemy fire, and that would have been some cycle ride! I just cannot see how Parr could have been killed in action on a day when there was no action.”

Despite the obvious discrepancies, and what can only be described a blatant misrepresentation of a recorded event in order to fit a narrative to support the proposition that Private Parr died several miles ahead of his Battalion on a day when no hostile contact between British and German troops was reported by either side, the story has not only become accepted since it first appeared in print in 1983 but has been expanded upon by further theories and suppositions.

Rose Coombs M.B.E. died in January 1991, but her book Before Endeavours Fade continued to be popular, and still is today with good reason. The seventh edition, the first published since her death, was revised by the European Editor of ‘After The Battle’ Magazine, Karel Margry, and the information that Private Parr had been killed while scouting ahead of his Battalion was by this time well-established in the folklore of the British experience of the Battle of Mons. In the past twenty years additional layers have been added to the narrative, which further obscure the verifiable evidence.

In 2004, while contributing to a Canadian television programme examining the stories of Private Parr and Private George Price, the historian Dr Andy Robertshaw was approached by an elderly lady while he was being filmed, dressed in period uniform and equipment and riding a bicycle, on the road towards Casteau close to S.H.A.P.E. Headquarters. Through a translator she told him that she had seen soldiers and recalled that one was firing from a ditch while he waved a comrade away. A German soldier was reportedly seen by the woman, who was a young girl in 1914, running through her garden and shot the British soldier dead. Dr Robertshaw was unable to make notes at the time but there was an implication that the British soldier she had seen was Private Parr. However this claim could not be verified.[33]

Interest in the story of Private Parr piqued during the run-up to the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the Great War, and in April 2014 another theory regarding his death was put forward by Dr Jon Cooksey. While casting doubt that Parr had been killed by the Germans on 21 August 1914, Dr Cooksey argued that there was a possibility that he had died as a result of ‘friendly fire.’[34] Widely reported in the press, the proposition that Parr may have been shot dead by French troops or Belgians was again prominently featured on anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August 2014.[35] The theory was expanded upon in a book that Dr Cooksey co-authored with Jerry Murland in which it was stated that:

“No German unit appears to be responsible for his death, leaving one to lean towards an accident or a ‘friendly fire incident’ at the hands of a French cavalry unit, a frightened yet armed local or indeed his own unit mistaking him for the enemy. Sadly we will never know the truth.”[36]

A further variation on the story was included in the Programme published for the official commemoration ceremony which took place at St Symphorien Military Cemetery on the evening of 4 August 2014. The grave of Private Parr was a particular focus during the ceremony, and the circumstances in which he died were described thus:

“It is likely that Parr was one of several men selected to form a cyclist platoon for 8th Brigade, detached from the Middlesex Regiment to provide scouting for British forces in advance. On 21 August, Parr is believed to have been on a reconnaissance mission north of Mons when he was killed, making him the first British soldier to be killed in action on the Western Front.”[37]

Unfortunately these additional layers of supposition have meant that the common perception of how Private Parr died has become even more opaque. As can be seen on various websites and social media posts relating the story, very few commentators take into consideration the numerous inconsistencies in the narrative, which are contradicted by the verifiable evidence from primary sources, and as a consequence the prevailing version of how Private Parr was killed is frequently accepted as ‘fact.’

With regard to my own research on the story of Private John Parr, it is apparent to me that the likely source of the date of death that was recorded for him over a century ago – 21 August 1914 – probably originated from No. 10 District Record Office at Hounslow. Whether this was based on information received from the Germans, or even a transcription error of the part of a clerk, (as can be ascertained with more certainty in the case of Private Bradshaw of the 4th Royal Fusiliers) cannot be definitely confirmed. However, it is clear from the evidence recorded on the Graves Registration Report Forms from August 1920 that this information had to be obtained from the relevant unit Record Offices in order for dates to be attributed to the graves of the British soldiers buried by the Germans at St Symphorien Military Cemetery during 1917.

What is far more certain, based on the conclusions that I have drawn from my research, is that the story of how Private Parr came to be so many miles ahead of his Battalion on the date on which he was supposed to have died has no foundation, and that recorded information was manipulated in order to create an explanation which fit with the recorded date of death. As far as I can deduce, the influence of Rose Coombs in how Private Parr is now commemorated was particularly strong as to how the narrative developed. I feel that it is now perhaps time that the original primary sources are re-examined instead of adding further theories and suppositions to support a story for which there is no real foundation. The desire to have a symbolic ‘first fatality’ buried on the battlefield where the British Expeditionary Force clashed with the German Army in August 1914 has for too long overridden any critical analysis of how and why Private Parr came to be considered to be the first British soldier to have died as a result of enemy action, and the narrative that has evolved over the past forty years bears no resemblance to anything that can be confirmed from primary documents. It also prompts many questions regarding ‘remembrance’ and what exactly we, collectively, want to believe regarding those who fought during the Great War.

Personally, I think Private John Henry Parr deserves better from us.


[1] I have tentatively identified the soldier in question, based on researching records held by the International Committee of the Red Cross and reports published in The Hendon and Finchley Times, as L/14056 Private Walter Sydney Gurney. A former fishmonger’s assistant who came from North Finchley, he had joined The Middlesex Regiment shortly before Parr. Private Gurney was taken prisoner at Obourg on 23 August 1914 and is confirmed from the ICRC records as having been held in captivity at Sennelager. Walter Gurney died on 1 November 1923 at Charing Cross Hospital, aged 29.

[2] ‘The Die Hards’: The Journal of The Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s), Volume VI, No. 8, May 1939, p.628. A significant proportion of those soldiers who were reported as missing were subsequently found to have been taken prisoner following the fighting.

[3] WO 95/1422 War Diary of the 4th Battalion, The Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment), extract from the diary of Lieutenant and Adjutant T. S. Wollocombe.

[4] The original enquiry card, which confirms that Mrs Parr had been informed that her son had been missing since 23 August 1914, is preserved in the records of the ICRC at Geneva and is available to view online at: grandguerre.icrc.org

[5] Fortunately the service record for Private Johnson has also survived in the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series held by The National Archive and this includes further information that mirrors the situation of Private Parr. The Casualty Form records that the Record Office at Hounslow only received information from the 4th Middlesex on 20 January 1916 that Private Johnson was reported as missing on 23 August 1914, and on 13 June a War Office memorandum stated that he was ‘required for official purposes’ to be recorded as having died on or since that date. The Register of Soldiers’ Effects entry for Private Johnson states that his mother Emma received notification from the Record Office at Hounslow that her was son was presumed to have died on or since 23 August 1914, and on 6 October 1916 the outstanding balance of his effects: £6.10.16, were forwarded to her. Private Herbert Johnson was recorded as having been buried by the Germans at St Symphorien in 1917, his remains having been exhumed from their original burial place, but the exact location of his grave was not known to the Graves Registration Unit when they began to work at the cemetery following the end of the war. Private Johnson is therefore commemorated by a headstone bearing the epitaph ‘Their Glory Shall Not Be Blotted Out” at Plot III, Row A, Grave 26. This plot forms a circle around the memorial to the “Royal” Middlesex Regiment which was erected by the Germans in honour of their foes.

[6] The 21 August 1914 date of death is also recorded in Private Parr’s entry in Volume 2 of De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918, p. 244.

[7] https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/894896/

[8] By coincidence, the service record of 8138 Private William Walsh survives in the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series.

[9] The same date (with a question mark included) appears in the entry for Private Spence in Volume 2 of De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour, p.282.

[10] Born at Islington in 1887, Henry Caisey stated that he was aged 17 years and six months and employed as a porter by the National Bakery Company when he attested for the 3rd Militia Battalion, The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) on 7 July 1902. After completing 49 days’ drill in on 24 August 1902, the following year he enlisted as a Regular soldier with The Middlesex Regiment on 19 June 1903, by which time he was working as a labourer. On the completion of his period of engagement with the Colours, Caisey was transferred to the Reserve and returned to London. Obtaining employment as a carman, Henry married Julia Shea at St Andrew’s Church in Barnsbury. The family lived at 133 and later 130 Pembroke Street in Islington, off the Caledonian Road, and Henry and Julia had three children together. Mobilised from the Reserve on the declaration of war, Henry left his wife and children; aged three, two and seven months, and reported to the Regimental Depot at Mill Hill before being posted to the 4th Battalion at Raglan Barracks in Devonport. Private Caisey disembarked at Boulogne on 14 August 1914 and nine days later he was in action with the 4th Middlesex and was severely wounded. Recovered from the battlefield by the Germans, he was taken to the temporary hospital set up at the l’Athénée Royal de Mons. Caisey succumbed to his wounds on 27 August 1914. Private Henry John Caisey is buried in Plot IV, Row B, Grave 15 of Mons (Bergen) Communal Cemetery.

[11] Rose Coombs: Before Endeavours Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War, London, Battle of Britain Prints International, 2nd (Revised) Edition, November 1977, p. 98 and 7th (Revised) Edition, November 1994, p. 114, and photograph taken by the author on 13 September 1992. The date on which this headstone was placed on his grave is not recorded. A subsequent replacement headstone which was erected over Private Parr’s grave during renovation work at the cemetery prior to the centenary commemorations in 2014 also does not have his age recorded on it.

[12] WO 95/1414 War Diary of the 2nd Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment).

[13] https://www.cwgc.org/find-records/find-war-dead/casualty-details/894896/#&gid=1&pid=1

[14] It should be emphasised that these ‘casualties’ were not due to enemy action but were as a consequence of men falling out or being taken ill while on the march. This is confirmed in Lieutenant Wollocombe’s diary, which mentions several men being intoxicated from alcoholic drinks given to them by villagers and also of Reservists suffering from problems with their feet due to wearing boots that had not had sufficient time to become ‘broken in.’

[15] The Die-Hards: Journal of the Middlesex Regiment, Vol. VI, No. 4, May 1938, p.288 & WO 95/1422.

[16] WO 95/1416/1.

[17] WO 95/1399/3. There is no record of any soldiers being sent for duty with the Divisional Cyclist Company from the 4th Middlesex recorded in the unit War Diary, or in the personal diary of Lieutenant and Adjutant T. S. Wollocombe.

[18] The Die-Hards: Journal of the Middlesex Regiment, Vol. VI, No. 5, August 1938, pp.370-372.

[19] Ibid, Vol VIII, No. 8, December 1948. pp. 247-248. L/10415 Lance-Corporal Oliver Taylor later served with the Machine Gun Corps and his service record survives in the WO 363 ‘Burnt Documents’ series.

[20] The cemetery register records that his father George and step-mother Polly resided at 25 Raynham Avenue in Edmonton after the war. The following inscription was carved at the base of Private Merry’s headstone: “Gone But Not Forgotten.”

[21] The Die Hards Newsletter, No. 27, September 1974, p.7.

[22] Correspondence between the author and the Enquiries Section of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission, 26 August 2020.

[23] Birmingham Daily Post, 16 November 1914.

[24] Recorded on the London Volunteer Soldiers record set available FindMyPast.com

[25] The Die Hards Newsletter, No. 20, November 1972, p. 2.

[26] This statement is incorrect, as several soldiers serving with the British Expeditionary Force had died prior to 21 August 1914 from various causes including illness, accident or suicide.

[27] The Die Hards Newsletter No. 42, November 1979, pp. 13-14 and No.44, December 1980 pp. 20-23.

[28] The timeline of correspondence was confirmed in communication between the author and the Enquiries Section of The Commonwealth War Graves Commission on 26 August 2020.

[29] This is incorrect, as demonstrated by what is recorded in the 4th Middlesex War Diary.

[30] The Mons-Conde Canal.

[31] Coverage of the 1984 Remembrance Sunday ceremony can be viewed on YouTube via this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iFL4eoG0tNQ The section relating to Private Parr is between 9.39 and 9.55 in the running time of the video.

[32] The copy of the Western Front Bulletin from Spring 1985 was kindly provided to me by John Tanner.

[33] BBC News, 4 August 2014 and communication between Dr Robertshaw and the author during August 2020.

[34] The Daily Express, 20 April 2014; The Times, 20 April 2014 and The Daily Mail, 20 April 2014.

[35] BBC News, 4 August 2014.

[36] Dr J. Cooksey & J. Murland: The Retreat from Mons 1914: North; Casteau to Le Cateau, The Western Front by Car, by Bike and on Foot (Barnsley, Pen and Sword, 2014), pp. 68-69.

[37] Anon: Centenary of the First World War – Mons: Commemoration at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery, St Symphorien(2014), p.28.

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