John Parr (British Army soldier)

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John Parr
Private John Parr grave at St Symphorien cemetery.jpg
The grave of John Parr in St Symphorien cemetery
Born (1897-07-19)19 July 1897
Church End, England
Died 21 August 1914(1914-08-21) (aged 17)
Obourg, Belgium
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  British Army
Rank Private
Unit 4th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment
Battles/wars World War I

Private John Henry Parr (19 July 1897 – 21 August 1914) was a British soldier. He is believed to be the first soldier of the Commonwealth killed by enemy action in the First World War.

Early years[edit]

Parr was born in Lichfield Grove, Finchley, now in the London Borough of Barnet. His father was a milkman. He lived most of his life at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley, the youngest of the eleven children of Edward and Alice Parr. [1] Many of his siblings died before their fourth birthday.[2]

On leaving school, he took a job as a butcher's boy, and then as golf caddy at North Middlesex Golf Club. Then, like many other young men of the time, he was attracted to the army as a potentially better way of life, and one where he would at least get two meals a day and a chance to see the world.[3] The 5'3" tall Parr joined the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment in 1912, aged 15, but claimed to be 18 years and one month old to meet the minimum age requirement. He was nicknamed "Ole Parr", possibly after Old Tom Parr.

Military activity[edit]

Private Parr specialised in becoming a reconnaissance cyclist, riding ahead to uncover information then returning with all possible speed to update the commanding officer. At the start of World War I in August 1914 Parr’s battalion was shipped from Southampton to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. With the German army marching into Belgium, Parr's unit took up positions near a village called Bettignies, beside the canal running through the town of Mons approximately 8 miles (13 km) away. On 21 August, Parr and another cyclist were sent to the village of Obourg, just north east of Mons, and slightly over the border in Belgium, with a mission to locate the enemy. It is believed that they encountered a cavalry patrol from the German First Army, and that Parr remained to hold off the enemy whilst his companion returned to report. He was killed in the ensuing rifle fire.


Since the British army retreated to a new position around the Marne after the first battle of Mons, Parr's body was left behind. In the ensuing months, the slow entrenchment of the war meant that news of Parr's death was not recognised until much later. After a while his mother wrote to the regiment asking about her son, but they were unable to tell her of his condition, and it may have been that they thought that he had been captured. At the time, there were no dog tags to help with the identification of casualties. The circumstances of his death remain unclear: the front line was approximately 11 miles (18 km) away, and he may have been killed by friendly fire rather than a German patrol,[4] or in the Battle of Mons on 23 August.[5]

Parr is buried in the St Symphorien military cemetery, just southeast of Mons,[6] and his age is given on the gravestone as twenty, the army not knowing his true age of seventeen. Coincidentally, his grave faces that of George Edwin Ellison, the last British soldier killed during the Great War.[7]

See also[edit]

  • Henry Hadley, a British civilian, sometimes said to be the "first British casualty" of the war, died on 5 August 1914 after being shot by a German soldier two days earlier
  • HMS Amphion, a British scout cruiser, sunk by a German mine on 6 August 1914, with around 170 killed


Further reading[edit]