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Mons in World War One

St. Symphorien lies 2 km from Mons, where John Parr and George Ellison are buried – they are considered to be the first and last British soldiers to die in WW1. Their burial together is in large part due to Mons being lost in the very opening stages of the war and regained at the very end, but it is still an uncanny coincidence. Private Parr is believed to have been shot by German troops on August 21, 1914 two days before the Battle of Mons commenced, whilst Private Ellison was killed an hour and a half before the ceasefire at 11am on November 11, 1918.

The cemetery at St. Symphorien was built after the Battle of Mons by the German Army in August 1914, for both British and German soldiers who had died. They built a seven metre high granite obelisk in memory of those who had fallen in that Battle. It remained in German hands until the very last stages of the war, and contains the graves of British, Commonwealth and German soldiers who were killed in the final days of the conflict. In total, there are 284 German and 230 Commonwealth casualties buried in this site, amongst them Private Parr and Ellison.

Private John Parr L/14196, 4th Bn Middlesex Regiment died on 21st August 1914 and is believed to be the first British casualty of WW1. His official age is stated as 20 years old, although he was in fact 16 years old. Parr lived most of his life in North Finchley as a golf caddy, overstating his age in order to join the Army and meet the minimum age requirement. He specialised in becoming a reconnaissance cyclist - riding ahead to uncover information, then returning to update the officers. At the start of WW1, Private Parr's unit took up positions near Mons and on 21 August, Parr and another cyclist were sent to locate the German Army. It is believed that they encountered an advancing German patrol unit and that Parr engaged them in a fire-fight whilst his fellow soldier returned with the news. It was over a year before his death was reported due to the fact that the British Army had retreated and his body was left behind enemy lines.

Private George Ellison L/12643, 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers died on 11th November 1918 aged 40 years old and is believed to be the last British casualty of WW1. Ellison was a miner and was married with a young son. He had joined the army early in life as a regular soldier and may even have been involved in the Boer war – he left to become a miner and was recalled at the outbreak of WW1. He fought at the Battle of Mons and was one of the first British troops to fight in the trenches. He is believed to have fought in many other battles including the Battle of Ypres and Somme and took part in the Allied advance in 1918. As one of the few original soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force still fighting, it is all the more tragic that he was killed just an hour and a half before the ceasefire was signed, on a patrol on the outskirts of Mons. His son was just 5 days short of his fifth birthday when his father was killed.

On the final day of WW1, Private Ellison was not alone – the shocking figure of almost 11,000 casualties has been calculated for that day, more casualties than those recorded for D-Day. Although the British, French and German diplomats signed the Armistice (ceasefire) that ended WWI at 5am in the morning of 11th November 1918, it was not until 11am that morning that the war would officially come to an end. The delay of six hours was to enable the information to filter to the troops on the frontline but the net effect was that there were thousands more casualties that day.

Private Ellison may have been the last British soldier to be killed but he was not the last soldier to be killed that day. Just outside Mons, Canadian Private George Lawrence Price was engaging in street fighting with the Germans and was shot at 10.58am. He is considered to be the last Commonwealth soldier to be killed in the Great War. The last soldier recognised to be killed in action was US soldier Henry Gunther in southern France, shot at 10.59am. Between Private Parr and Private Ellison, WWI, the war to end all wars, claimed nearly a million British and Commonwealth soldiers' lives.