It says much about America and those who have served her in uniform through generations of time, that our honored war dead lie in at least 24 military cemeteries in foreign lands. Altogether 124,917 American soldiers, sailors and airmen rest in other countries, to which can be added another 80,000 who were never found or were lost at sea in foreign service, including more than 8,000 still “missing” in Korea alone. 30,922 who died in WW I are buried in eight official sites in France, along with 93,245 who lost their lives and ended up there with them in WW II. The military cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach in Normandy is one of the most visited, and beautifully-maintained with 9,387 at rest there. Sadly, the most neglected and nearly-forgotten of our war-dead lie in a cemetery near Manila in the Philippines where more of our uniformed warriors came to rest than anywhere else. With grave markers obliterated by time, weather and volcanic ash, their number is believed to exceed 17,000.
In recent years, survivor families have traveled by the millions to visit and research these sacred burial sites and to find a connection with memories that refuse to sleep. They often find hidden stories.
One of the most unusual and poignant of stories tied to such places has come to light from historians visiting a small but lovely burial ground near the Belgian town of St. Symphorien close to the village of Mons where fierce fighting between invading German and defending British forces took place in the course of WW I –“The Great War”. It is proof that FACT often trumps FICTION.
With the war only days of age, Britain’s first action in August 1914 was about to take place near the town of Mons, and 16-year old Private John Parr, of Finchley, North London, a former golf caddy who had lied about his age in order to join up was about to ride into the history books on a bicycle. He had not yet been given a helmet and may not even have been issued a weapon when he was sent to scout enemy movements on his two-wheeler. In a vast killing ground that would see one million British Empire soldiers dead before the U.S. came to their aid three years later, young Private Parr became the first Allied battlefield statistic. In a makeshift cemetery in the town of St. Symphorien, he would be buried by the Germans who had won the day. (His family would not be officially notified of his death for many months afterward and would learn of the exact circumstances only after the war had ended.)
When, with more than 10 million dead, the two warring sides finally met to talk about armistice terms four years later, they came to an agreement at 5:00 am on November 11, 1918. For reasons never completely understood, they determined that the fighting would officially come to an end at 11:00 am – as if there was something magical or symbolic about the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”.
This matter of six hours would prove to be more than symbolic for Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, who had somehow, miraculously survived four years of nearly continuous mortar, cannon and rifle fire, poisonous gas attacks, trench warfare, sickness and death from all sides only to die from a sniper’s bullet 90 minutes before the magic hour of eleven. At age 40, the husband and father of two became the last British soldier to die in “The Great War”.
Private Ellison, the last Brit to die in WW I would end up in what happened to be the “next burial site available” in the German cemetery in St. Symphorien, directly opposite the grave of Private John Parr who had been the first.
Caption for title photo:
An American flag with a French “Thank You” marks a G.I.’s resting place near Omaha Beach, Normandy.
In the company of 284 German soldiers and 229 fellow Britons, the body of Private John Parr, the first Allied casualty of WW I lies in the cemetery at St. Symphorien a few feet from that of Private George Ellison who survived all but the last 90 minutes of that war.