|Photo by Bob Richardson 2007|
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. 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. Many of his siblings died before their fourth birthday.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.
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. Private Parr specialized 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 recognized 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, or in the Battle of Mons on 23 August. He is buried in the St Symphorien Military Cemetery, just southeast of Mons, 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. On 21 August 2014, the 100th anniversary of Parr's death, a memorial paving stone was ceremonially unveiled in the pavement outside 52 Lodge Lane. The ceremony was attended by about 300 people, including local dignitaries and Parr family members, one of whom read a letter from his mother to the War Office written in October 1914 to inquire about him. A memorial "standing stone" nearby, to bear a plaque with further details of Parr's life and death, is planned. A plaque has also been placed in the golf club where he worked as a caddy. While Parr is believed to be the first Commonwealth soldier killed in action, several soldiers had been killed by friendly fire and accidental shooting after the declaration of war but before troops were sent overseas, starting with Cpl Arthur Rawson on 9 August 1914.