Private John Parr – the first British death on the Western Front

One hundred years ago today, 21st August 1914, the first British soldier is believed to have died on the Western Front.

John Henry Parr was the son of a milkman from Finchley, London. He joined the army in 1912, giving his age as 17, although the census a year earlier shows him as 13 years old in 1911. He was baptised at St John’s Church, Holloway on 4th September 1898. He would, therefore, have been about 14 years of age when he joined the Army in 1912 as a Private with the Middlesex Regiment.

By the time war broke out in 1914, he was a reconnaissance cyclist, obtaining information to take back to senior officers. On 21st August 1914, John Parr was sent out on patrol and was never seen again, although it took some months for his family to be told. His gravestone gives his age as 20 but he was actually about 17.

In 1921, a national memorial to all cyclists who died as a result of their war service was erected in the Centre of  England – Meriden, now in the Borough of Solihull.

Image of unveiling of Cyclists War Memorial
The unveiling of the National Cyclists’ Memorial, Meriden on 21st May 1921, witnessed by over 20,000 cyclists

Private Parr was particularly remembered at the Cyclists’ Memorial Service held in May 2014, marking one hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War.

A memorial service for cyclists who died in the war has been held at Meriden every year since the memorial was unveiled in 1921. This British Pathé film clip shows the 1950 event.

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Boy soldiers

It is known that about 250,000 boys served on the front line during World War I, whilst being under the age of 19. This was the official age at which overseas service was permitted. This BBC guide gives a useful introduction to some of the reasons for a conspiracy of silence around the enlistment of boys, which was especially prevalent before the introduction of conscription in 1916.

The youngest authenticated combatant of the First World War is Sidney Lewis, from Tooting, South London, who was able to join up at the age of 12 years and 5 months, and saw active service on the Somme for six weeks. A letter to the War Office from his mother demanding his return resulted in his being withdrawn from the front line, discharged from the Army, and sent home.

William Edward Shilvock Wright

In an article in the Birmingham Post 22nd November 1918 reporting the death of his eldest brother, Second Lieutenant John Shilvock Wright, it is mentioned that W. E. S. Wright served at Loos and on the Somme at the age of 15, returning home after being gassed, and then rejoining on attaining military age. He was training for a commission at the time of his brother’s death.

Image of Billy Wright
William Edward Wright, aged 15, in his Royal Field Artillery uniform (courtesy of David Gimes)

Continue reading “Boy soldiers”

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