A hand-written pledge to keep their memory alive forever
PRIVATE George Ellison almost made it out alive. He died while on patrol just outside Mons, Belgium, at 9.30am on November 11 1914, 90 minutes before the end of the First World War. He was the last British soldier killed – 886,345 UK troops had died before him.
At the start of three days to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War yesterday, Theresa May left a hand-written note at Pte Ellison’s grave side, promising never to forget.
Over the weekend millions will attend events, including the lighting of 10,000 lanterns at the Tower of Lon- don; tiny figures laid out at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to represent the 72,396 British servicemen killed at the Battle of the Somme who have no known grave; and portraits of the dead etched in the sand at 32 beaches in a project devised by Danny Boyle, the film and Olympics 2012 director.
It will be a weekend of intense diplomatic activity. The Prime Minister met the French and Belgian presidents yesterday, while Emmanuel Macron sees Donald Trump today in Paris.
On Sunday, while Mrs May and the Prince of Wales lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, Mr Macron hosts the US president and Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, at a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe. The various events will be watched keenly for signs of a new world order.
At St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons yesterday, Mrs May placed her note at Pte Ellison’s grave, quoting the Laurence Binyon poem For the Fallen, which was published in September 1914 and is often recited on Remembrance Sunday.
“They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted...we will remember them.”
Opposite his grave is buried John Parr, 17, of the Middlesex Regiment, who on August 21 1914, became the first British soldier to die in the conflict. Accompanied by Charles Michel, the Belgian Prime Minister, Mrs May also laid a wreath at Pte Parr’s grave. There too she left a note, this time quoting from Rupert Brooke’s poem The Soldier.
“There is in that rich earth a richer dust concealed,” Mrs May quoted on a card in memory of Pte Parr.
By the afternoon, the Prime Minister had travelled to France to meet Mr Macron in Albert, a town in the heart of the Somme region that suffered a devastating bombardment.
The statue of the Virgin Mary that sits atop the town’s church had leant precariously for much of the war. British troops had believed that when it fell the war would be over. The Leaning
‘It is important we remember the friendship and brotherhood between our two countries’
Virgin in fact toppled in April 1918.
Albert has a special place in Mr Macron’s heart. His British great-grandfather George Robertson, from Bristol, fought there during the battle of the Somme. He stayed on to marry a Frenchwoman, with whom he had three children.
After lunch Mrs May and Mr Macron travelled to the Thiepval Memorial, the towering monument that commemorates the Missing of the Somme, the soldiers who have no graves.
The two leaders laid a wreath of poppies and bleuets – the French equivalent of the poppy – and then visited two graves. One was that of Philip Ernest Stubbs, who was killed, aged 17,
on Nov 3, 1916; the other was of Charles Baron, of the French artillery, who was killed, aged 21, on June 11, 1915. The wreath that was laid stated: “There lie the flower of youth, the men who scorn’d to live (so died) when languished liberty” – a quotation from A
Soldier’s Cemetery by John William Streets, who was himself killed in 1916.
This was a moment to reflect, said Mrs May, on the two nations’ efforts fighting side-by-side in two world wars, and a chance to look ahead to a “shared future, built on peace, prosperity and friendship”.
At Thiepval, Paul Evrard, 88, a Frenchman whose father and two brothers died in the Second World War, looked on, carrying a French flag as he has done for the past 46 years, on every Remembrance weekend.
“It is important we remember the friendship and brotherhood between our two countries,” said Mr Evrard. This will be a weekend of reconciliation. At the Cenotaph on Sunday – and for the first time – a German leader will lay a wreath.
Frank-walter Steinmeier, the German president, will perform the duty on behalf of his nation in a historic act of reconciliation.
After the service, 10,000 people, chosen by ballot, will have the chance to pay their respects to those who served in the Great War by taking part in the Nation’s Thank You procession past the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Across the country, the bells will ring out as they did at the end of the First World War – and a Westminster Abbey service will be held, along with others in Glasgow, Cardiff and Belfast.
The Queen, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Duke and Duchess of Sussex will attend the Abbey service.
Left: Theresa May takes a silent moment at St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium, at the grave of George Ellison, the last British soldier to die on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. Far left, the Prime Minister lays a wreath at the grave of John Parr, the first British soldier to be killed in 1914