A Day to Remember

Things seem to have aligned for the centenary of the Great War Armistice. 11th November fell on a Sunday this year so the focus was not split between two days. The weather was sunny, autumnal, golden (in contrast to the rain in Paris). I began the day with reflections on the song Poppy Day.

Join-Hands siouxsie and the banshees guards memorial record cover LP album

A while later I went to the house of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in action in World War One. He lived down the road from me in North Finchley from 1909 until 1914. He was 17 when he gave his life. I set out from the front path of his family house to walk to the local annual Remembrance Ceremony at Tally Ho Corner (Siegfried Sassoon would have liked that name – Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man [1928]).

John Parr WW1 soldier plaque Finchley London N12

in front of John Parr’s family home

John Parr WW1 soldier family home Finchley London N12

John Parr’s family home at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley

What struck me about the ceremony was the diversity of the young cadets who were its focal point. Many girls, many non-white faces, all integrated into the small units of land, sea and air cadets, cub scouts and the marching band. In an age of donkey politicians, that’s where the hope lies.

Finchley War Memorial

Finchley War Memorial commemorating service personnel of the army, navy and nascent air force

Finchley War Memorial remembrance service 2018

Finchley War Memorial remembrance service 2018

Poppy red

Later in the afternoon I visited for the first time the Tree Cathedral in Whipsnade – perfect timing with the autumn golds. It was designed as a memorial for three friends by Edmund Blyth. Arthur Bailey and John Bennett were fellow infantrymen whose lost lives Blyth decided to memorialise in the form of trees laid out in the shape of a natural cathedral. Francis Holland was a third Tommy pal who died in 1930 prompting him to realise his arboreal vision.

The Tree Cathedral has the shape of a traditional medieval cathedral, but formed of trees. Although it contains beautiful areas, that is not its primary significance. It is managed to emphasise the vigour and balance of individual plants, in patterns that create an enclosure of worship and meditation, offering heightened awareness of God’s presence and transcendence. (Edmund Blyth 1940)

edmund blyth creator of tree cathedral whipsnade

Edmund Blyth

tree cathedral whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

After my visit I sat on a bench at the end of the hornbeam avenue leading to the Cathedral entrance reading from my trusty old copy of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (first read at school, this copy from university days, with its familiar poppies against black background photographic cover) – Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, John McCrae, Rupert Brooke and DH Lawrence (with whom I share a birthday).

the penguin book of first world war poetry cover

Poppies in the morning and at the going down of the sun. And to conclude, that local setting son, John Parr, more than merits a brief history of his brief life for the record…

the jam setting sons album LP record vinyl cover

Parr was a long way from the Eton Rifles

John Henry Parr was born on 19th July 1897 in Lichfield Grove, Finchley, son of a milkman, Edward Parr, and his wife Alice. He lived most of his short life at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley, London N12. He was the youngest of eleven children – just 5’3″ tall.

He left school and went straight to work, initially as a butcher’s boy, then as a caddie at North Middlesex Golf Club. In 1912 he joined the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment – he was just 15 but claimed to be 18.

He was a Private and became a reconnaissance cyclist, riding ahead in search of useful intelligence to convey back with alacrity to senior officers. In August 1914 his battalion was shipped from Southampton to Boulogne-sur-Mer, and then on to a village, Bettignies, sited on the canal to Mons. On 21st August 1914, just 17 days after the Declaration of War, Parr and a fellow reconnaissance cyclist were dispatched to the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons, just over the Belgian border, on a mission to locate enemy forces. It is believed they ran into a cavalry patrol of the German First Army and Parr was killed in an exchange of fire.

With the British army retreating to the Marne after the first battle of Mons (on 23rd August), Parr’s body was left behind. In October 1914 his mother wrote to the War Office enquiring after him but they were unable to tell her anything certain, they may well have been unsure whether he had been captured or killed.

Parr is buried in St Symphorien Military Cemetery, south-east of Mons. The age on his gravestone is 20 (the army didn’t know he was actually 17).

By coincidence his grave is opposite George Edwin Ellison’s, the last British soldier killed during the First World War.

Private_John_Parr_grave_at_St_Symphorien_cemetery

Private John Parr’s grave

tree cathedral whipsnade

The entrance to the Tree Cathedral, Whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

The going down of the sun on a resonant day

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

For The Fallen – Robert Binyon (September 1914)

 

 

Advertisements

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: