Five strides apart, five summers past, I saluted you and the old sweats riding to War.
I fell first. And waited: while you mined the frozen mud. Ducked into crump holes. Pinched lice from your seams. Felt the pear drops’ sting at Wipers.
Creating the Centena
Yorkshireman George Edwin Ellison was already an ‘Old Sweat’ by the War’s outbreak. Little information remains of his life, and his service record is lost. But his service number suggests he enlisted shortly after the turn of the century. By 1912 he had left the army, married Hannah Burgan and was a coal miner in Leeds. In the summer of 1914, at the age of 34, he was recalled to the army as a Private in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, then shipped out with the British Expeditionary Force.
His regiment’s War Diaries, in the National Archives at Kew, tell us that he would be among the first to see action in Belgium, at the Battle of Mons. The diaries record a litany of place names linked with loss across the years: Messines, Loos, Ypres, Cambrai and, in the closing 100 days of the War, the pursuit of German forces to Mons. He would have experienced the bloody industrialisation of the conflict – the initial ‘mobile’ warfare, the first trenches, the first gas attack, the first tank assault.
After more than four years’ service, Ellison’s regiment was ordered to take Mons on 11th November 1918. The Lancers were an advanced guard, carrying out reconnaissance. Ellison was scouting in woods on horseback when he was shot and killed by a sniper. It was 9.30am, an hour and a half before the Armistice.
Thousands were killed and wounded on that day, even as celebrations of the War’s end began at home. Ellison is the last British soldier to be killed in battle. He was buried in the tranquil military cemetery at St Symphorien, close to Mons, alongside 228 other Commonwealth and 284 German soldiers. In my research, chief assistance was from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Ellison’s resting place is in an avenue of carefully-tended graves. Almost exactly opposite him is the grave of Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment. The Londoner joined up in 1912 at the age of 15 (claiming to be 18) and trained as a reconnaissance cyclist. On 21 August 1914, as part of an advance party, he and a fellow cyclist rode to the town of Obourg, near Mons. They are believed to have encountered a German patrol and Parr was shot. Uncertainties remain about the circumstances of his death, but he was buried by the Germans at St Symphorien. Parr was the first British soldier to be killed in action in the First World War. He was 17.
They become symbolic due to their status as first and last killed; yet one was a boy, the other battle-hardened and old enough to be his father.
I meditated on this closeness and this separation. I have told the story of Ellison in Parr’s voice, who has been waiting for him in the Belgian earth. During my research I became fascinated by the language and the slang of the Tommies, and introduced this.
‘Pear Drops’ is slang for poison gas. A ‘Goodnight Kiss’ is the final bullet from a sniper at the end of an assault.
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