The First + Last Commonwealth Casualties

The following appeared on WW1-L in November, 1999 and appears here by permission of the author.

From Nigel Wilson

For the purpose of this post "BE+C" shall mean "British Empire and Commonwealth"

Three days after celebrating his 22nd birthday, a Leading Telegraphist in the Royal Navy , sat onboard his ship writing home to his parents . The English port in which his ship sat was many miles from his parents home in the small village of Freuchie , Fife, Scotland. It was the evening of the 2nd of August 1914. The letter showed a number of emotions , which may be expected from a young serviceman in the days preceding a coming war...he showed hope, realism , anxiety, but in an uncharacteristicly bombastic statement " you can be assured we will not go under without having a German in return" he made his letter , above all, prophetic. The young sailors name was William Carson Mair, he had been born in Kilmarnock , Glasgow...but his parents had moved to the "new home" in Freuchie after young William had taken leave of his parents and 4 brothers and sisters in 1908 when he joined the Royal Navy as a boy entrant. Just over 48 hours after the letter was penned , Britain, declared war on Germany. The war is under 12 hours old and the Light cruiser AMPHION along with destroyers LANCE and LANDRAIL , come upon the German minelayer KONIGIN LUISE , the RN ships assist each other in the demise of the German Vessel. A number of survivors from the German ship are taken onboard the British ships. Ar around 0630 the following morning,the 6th of August the small flotilla is returning from a sweep of the Dutch coast , AMPHION strikes a mine and as she settles in the water , her back broken , a second explosion attended by "a great orange glow " emits from her and she sinks like a stone. Despite the best efforts of the accompanying vessels 149 men on AMPHION are lost , these men are the first BE+C casualties of the First World War. Among the casualties is our letter writer , William Mair , his so recently written prophecy, sadly, coming true. The meaning of war, via a black edged telegram , came home very early to a household in the small community of Freuchie.

HMS Amphion
(from a postcard in Nigel Wilson's collection)

Over four years and millions of casualties after the events above , in a house on the Rue de Mons at the vilage of Ville-Sur-Haine near to Mons in Belgium , we find a man , like many of his companions several thousands of miles from home. He is George Lawrence Price , at 25 years of age he is in his prime , George is serving with the 28th Battalion (Saskatchewan) Canadian Infantry . His parents James and Annie must have scanned the local papers in Port William , Nova Scotia , with elements of excitement and anxiety for news of their sons unit since he had joined the Army. George Price is reported as killed in action at the house on Rue de Mons at 10:58 in the morning of the 11th of November 1918 , seemingly,he is definitely the last Canadian killed in the Great War and possibly the last casualty of all BE+C forces. Today, George Price lies buried in St Symphorien British Cemetry , a few kilometres away from where he was killed . One cannot help but wonder , the effect of the news of his loss had on his family , as by the time they heard of it , they almost undoubtedly knew that the War was over.

It is now almost 7 weeks since the Armistice and after travelling from southern England by train over 300 men gather at the shore-side at The Kyle of Lochalsh in western Scotland. They had 2 things in common these men , they had all been away at the War , and all , came from the island of Lewis ,in the Outer Hebrides , the main port of which , Stornaway , was now just 60 miles away across the water, most, if not all the men had been serving with the Royal Navy Reserve. Across the cold waters on Lewis , excitement was high , friends and loved ones home so soon, and at Hogmannay as well , warm welcomes were prepared. The Mail steamer SHEILA which normally served the island community was too small to carry so many men , so an Admiralty armed yacht IOLAIRE had been brought down from its base at Stornaway to get everyone home in one voyage. Embarkation went ahead , with 60 going onboard SHEILA and 260 joining the 24 crew of IOLAIRE for the voyage across. At 7:30 in the evening they sailed for home, it was the 31st of December 1918. At around midnight a southerly wind rose and heavy seas followed , but by 1:30 am on the first day of 1919 , IOLAIRE was just a few miles out of Stornaway harbour , the lights of home now visible. On Lewis 25 minutes later red distress rockets were spotted just above the Biastan Holm rocks , just outside Stornaway harbour , IOLAIRE had struck the rocks and was in dire danger. One of the men onboard the stricken vessel , a certain John Macleod , with great bravery managed to get a line ashore and across this about 40 men managed to scramble to safety. Just over an hour after the distress rockets were fired the yacht broke her back , slipped off the rocks and sank. Of the 284 souls onboard IOLAIRE when she sailed , 205 passengers and crew died in the wreck. In the small communities of Lewis , the news travelled quickly , I will leave to the reader to imagine how, as New years day 1919 unfolded , those who had waited patiently on the island for this great return , came to feel.

OVERVIEW Many , Many,pages have been written on the Great War , as regarding to how , or why it started , and many indeed as to how it was allowed to continue , to go on seemingly forever , when so many people from many nations were being killed , in what was appearing to be a futile struggle for all concerned. In looking at the reasoning for the wars continuance one of the finest short summaries I have ever read came from the pen of A.J.P. Taylor , it is the last paragraph of an article he wrote on the perspectives of the year of 1918 . The article appeared in the Purnell part work on WW1 in 1971. To me it speaks volumes , it is as follows: "The statesmen went on with the war in order to protect themselves from revolution - thus often causing the revolution they dreaded. The peoples were equally obstinate. Though soldiers hated the trenches and civilians grumbled against harsh conditions , public opinion in every country applauded the warmakers and condemned those who sought a way out . Statesmen fell from power when they were alleged to be soft or ineffective in waging war - Bethmann in Germany , Asquith in England , the Tsar in Russia. The hard men - Lloyd George , Clemenceau , Ludendorff - triumphed. British Soldiers sang this song.................
We're here because we're here
Because we're here
Because we're here
This was the spirit of the First World War . They fought because they fought , because they fought , because they fought. The war was not a great tribute to human wisdom."

Of all the veterans I have known and talked too over the past 30 or so years not one of them showed any doubt that they believed and had faith in what they were doing , " of course we wanted to all go home , but we had to sort the other buggars (enemy) out first," to quote an old Territorial I used to know. Of course for us in todays times , we laze in the glorious luxury of hindsight , so easy for us to pick fault with anybody and everything concerning the 14-18 war , but were we able to cast ourselves back to those years , without the knowledge of today , would the vast majority of people on this list react any different to those who were involved in the war?... I'll wager not... This writer would have been like his family at the time "In like Flynn" for better for worse, and most probably the latter. So what is rememberance day for.?...Is it to reflect on the stupidity of the situation all those years ago? and to castigate those who took part ?....Is it to patronise those who died by taking the superior attitude "we know better now" ?...Is it to earnestly keep alive the memory of those who fought , suffered and died for a cause which they thought more important than their own wellbeing?..Is it to help us realise just how lucky we are being in the age that we are?.... I have always , since schooldays , taken a big interest in Rememberance day and have to admit over the years that all the things I have just mentioned have been to the fore in my mind , feeling an amount of shame when admitting to one of the outlooks in particular . In his writing above A.J.P. Taylor basically points to human nature as the crux of WW1 , I totally agree with him...also of course said nature has not changed at all since , nor will it perhaps for many a century..So! indeed today my main outlook of Rememberance Day is to remember those who suffered , particularly my own relations of course...but there is still another thing which continually pushes itself to the front of my mind is totally selfish and hypocritical for my own part , it is literally summed up in an old an un-original phrase ..."There but for the grace of God go I"


As well as the 149 RN sailors who died on AMPHION , 18 German sailors taken as POW in the action with KONIGIN LUISE were also lost when AMPHION sank. Bitterly ironic as the mine was laid by themselves. The destroyer LANCE via her forward gun fired the first BE+C shot of the Great War while attacking the KONIGIN LUISE. The gun is in the IWM London, unfortunately the name of the man who actually fired the first shot is not known, unlike the man who fired the first shot on land.

St Symphorien military cemetary also contains the grave of the first BE+C soldier to be killed on the western front ...Pte J Parr Middlesex Regt 21st Aug 1914 (originally believed 23 Aug but since confirmed as the 21st) There is also the grave of Pte G E Ellison 5th Ryl Irish Lncrs who is also claimed as "the last to die before the armistice" however he may have been wounded earlier and many men continued to die from wounds and injuries long after the armistice (my own Grandfather by example ) the same book explicitly states that the Canadian Geo Price was killed at exactly 10:58 on the 11th Nov. so he really does look like the "last man". To further muddy this "last casualty" situation...I have been looking on and off into the action on the Milina River , Portuguese East Africa on the 12th Nov 1918 between the !st batt 4th Kings African Rifles and Lettow-Vorbecks forces , the KAR history describes the action as "brisk" but I have failed to find mention of any casualties , or indeed , confirmation that there were none. Irrespective as to whether this action did have a "last casualty" it was, without doubt the last action fought by BE+C forces in the Great War.

The Island of Lewis sent a remarkable total of 6,000+ plus men to the war , this was out of a total population of only 30,000 , over half of them served in the Royal Naval Reserve. I seem to remember that Lewis was not the only place to suffer losses to its returning men , immeadiately after the armistice. I have a recollection of an account I read years back of a small contingent of men from a tiny village somewhere in the UK . All the men had served in the same unit and none of the villages contribution to the war effort had become casualties . Come the end and the unit had received orders to proceed home to be de-mobbed . Upon billeting for the night in a handy building ,somebody lit a brazier , and as it was freezing weather every assistance had been made to stop freezing draughts . Come the morning , every soldier in the building was dead , killed by the fumes from the brazier , among them the entire contingent from the village. I have turned everything upside down trying to find this account , I wonder of any lister has seen anyhting similar , or indeed, knows the story in full?.


Last Updated: 2 January, 2000.

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