First casualty of the war

Remembered: John Parr's gravestone in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons, where he was killed in the First World Wars opening battle

Remembered: John Parr's gravestone in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery near Mons, where he was killed in the First World Wars opening battle

First published in News

The first soldier to die in the First World War was from Finchley. PERCY REBOUL and JOHN HEATHFIELD look at the short life of John Parr

For many of us, one of the most moving moments in the Remembrance Day ceremony in the Albert Hall is when the cascade of red poppy leaves twirl down from ceiling to floor - one for each of the servicemen killed in wars. Of that number, more than a million commemorate the dead of the First World War, the most destructive in our whole history.

The very first of these poppy leaves, in a sense, commemorates a young man from Finchley who was the first soldier from the British and Empire forces to be killed in the war. He was killed in the first minute of the first clash with German soldiers near the canal that runs through the Belgian town of Mons.

John Parr was born in 1898 in Finchley and lived most of his life at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley. He was the youngest son of Edward and Alice Parr. Edward was employed by the A1 Dairies at Whetstone and Alice, later on, was a midwife. On leaving Albert Street School, John took a job as a caddy at the North Middlesex Golf Course in Friern Barnet Lane, where the pay was 9d (around 4p) for 18 holes with no tipping allowed and no work on Sundays.

In common with a number of young men at this time, John decided that life might be better in the Army, where at least he was assured two square meals a day, plenty of comradeship and the chance to see other parts of the world.

He almost certainly overstated his age when he joined the regiment - the Middlesex Regiment (known as the Diehards) - at its depots and training centre at Inglis Barracks, Mill Hill. There he became a competent trained soldier able to fire 15 shots a minute accurately at a target. He also learned to ride a bike and became one of the unit's reconnaissance scouts who located the enemy and, before the days of walkie-talkies, brought information back in the quickest possible time.

In early August 1914, the German army was marching almost unopposed into Belgium and, to meet the threat, Parr's unit (4th Bn Middlesex Regiment) together with others, took up positions on a bank of the canal that runs through the important town of Mons. They were part of the British Expeditionary Force and were to prove to be formidable fighters. On August 21, Parr and another cyclist were sent to the other side of the canal to locate the enemy. He was spotted by a German unit and killed in the exchange of rifle fire.

Back at home, local newspapers such as this one published a weekly list of names of local men serving in the armed forces. A little later, the papers published another column honouring the men who had died on active service.

Surprisingly, John Parr's name continued for many months in the 'serving soldiers' column and his death was not reported.

One of the most poignant episodes of the matter is a letter that has survived in which Mrs Parr wrote (possibly to the regiment) asking if they had news of her son. He had not replied to her letters and she had not heard from him for weeks. The War Office had stated they could not help. We do not know why such a delay would occur, but we do know that he was underage for serving at the front. He was certainly not the 20 years of age marked on his gravestone.

Today it is difficult to understand the conduct of the 1914-18 war. A glance at the war memorials in our churches are testimony to the huge casualty figures - and John Parr was just the first of many from our area.

The only good thing that comes from this unhappy episode is that John Parr has a well-kept grave in what is acknowledged to be one of Europe's most beautiful cemeteries - St Symphorien Military Cemetery - not far from where he was killed in Mons. It is unfortunate that we have never been able to find a single photograph of him, neither have we been able to locate a relative who may have a family memento of his life. He is, and will always remain, however, a page in history.

If you can add any details to John Parr's life, or believe you can identify him in a photograph, please contact the newsdesk on 020 8359 5903, or email: timesnews@london.newsquest.co.uk

Send us your news, pictures and videos

Most read stories

Local Info

Enter your postcode, town or place name

About cookies

We want you to enjoy your visit to our website. That's why we use cookies to enhance your experience. By staying on our website you agree to our use of cookies. Find out more about the cookies we use.

I agree