By an irony of history, the first and last British soldiers to have died on the battlefield were both killed in Mons. The First World War killed around 800,000 British soldiers, including John and George, the first and the last.
A teenager on the battlefield
He had lied about his age in the name of Freedom. Like many young British men, he didn’t want to twiddle his thumbs while the German army invaded Belgium, a neutral country. The son of a London milkman, John Parr was the first British soldier to die near Mons on 21 August 1914, two days before the battle. The 16 or 17-year-old teenager had been sent as a scout with one of his friends. They set off on their bikes from Obourg station and were ambushed. Only one came back alive. The enemy didn’t give poor John a chance. He now lies in Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery in the peaceful countryside of Mons. Two days after his death, the Battle of Mons had some 5,000 victims and ended with the retreat of the British army. The soldiers would soon be taking up their position in the trenches for many long months.
Daddy won’t be coming home
Symbolically, opposite him in Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery, lies the last British soldier to die on the battlefield. George Edwin Ellison was 40 years old and came from the Leeds region. He had married Hannah Maria two years previously, and was the happy father of James Cornelius. Young James had just turned one when his father went to the front line. A valiant soldier, George Edwin Ellison had been involved in the battles of Mons in 1914, Ypres, Armentières, La Bassée, Loos and Cambrai on the Western Front before fighting his last battle in Mons in 1918. After foiling the enemy for four years, he was killed 90 minutes before the bugle sounded the Armistice.
Two minutes before the Armistice
In Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery, each grave tells its own tragic story. What can you say about the Canadian George Lawrence Price, killed at the age of 25 at Ville-sur-Haine, on 11 November 1918 at 10.58am, just two short minutes before the ceasefire was declared on the front? The authorities knew that the war was over, but the British wanted to save Mons whatever the cost, no doubt for its symbolism. After four years of occupation, the city of Mons was liberated by the Commonwealth troops on 11 November 1918, going down in history as the place where the war began and ended for the British.