Some important British Army "firsts and lasts" of the Great War

The Great War was an immense, sprawling affair over four hard years. The facts and statistics could fill many websites. Here are just a few of the more interesting of the 'firsts and lasts' of the British Army in the Great War.

First British soldier to die on the Western Front
Friday 21 August 1914, near Mons

It is believed that L/141916 Private John Parr, 4th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment, was the first British soldier to die on the Western Front when he was killed while on patrol near Obourg. His battalion was in the hot of the action at Mons two days later when among many acts of great bravery were two that were sufficient for an award of the Victoria Cross

First shots fired by the British Army against the enemy on the Western Front
Saturday 22 August 1914, near Mons

At dawn, C Squadron of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, commanded by Major Tom Bridges, pushed out two patrols north towards Soignies and met the Germans for the first time. They commenced a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières. Four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop, under Captain Hornby, and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. (Corp. Thomas joined the Army at the age of 14 years, and had served in the Indian Army. In 1916 he transferred into the Machine Gun Corps. He came through the war without a scratch, and was awarded the MM. Demobilising in 1923, he became the Commissionaire of a cinema in Brighton, where he died in 1939). Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood. There were other cavalry encounters with the enemy in the areas of La Louviere and Binche.

First of the Territorial Divisions to go overseas as a complete formation
10 September 1914

Go one better!Men who joined the Territorial Force before the war were not obliged to serve overseas. However, when war was declared they were invited to do so and the majority did. 90% of the East Lancashire Division (later to be designated 42nd) - men of the Blackburn, Bolton, Chorley and Burnley areas - signed up and by 10th September 1914 they had mobilised, moved to Southampton, and embarked for Egypt.

First unit of the Territorial Force to go to a theatre of war
19 September 1914

The 1/1st Queen's Own Oxfordshire Hussars Yeomanry landed at Dunkirk, under orders to assist the defence of Antwerp.

First shooting down of a German aeroplane by anti aircraft fire
23 September 1914

Lt O. Hogg and his gun team of No. 2 AA Section of the Royal Garrison Artillery, then with III Corps, shot down an enemy aircraft after firing 75 rounds.

First organised attack by the British Army on the Western Front
13 October 1914

4th and 6th Divisions of Lt-Gen. Pulteney's III Corps attacked enemy positions on the Meterenbeek, near Hazebrouck.

First soldiers of Lord Kitchener's New Armies to come under fire
16 December 1914

Men of the 18th (Service) Battalion (1st County), the Durham Light Infantry became the first troops of the New Armies to come under enemy fire, when they were manning the trenches of the Tyne and Tees defences which were shelled by the German ships Derfflinger, Von Der Tann and Blucher.

First exchange of prisoners of war
15 February 1915

10 British and 95 German wounded POWs were released to return home, both going via the Netherlands.

First underground mine fired by British forces
17 February 1915

The first British mine was blown at Hill 60 by RE troops of 28th Division.

First New Army Division to go overseas
9 May 1915

The thistle symbol of the 9th DivisionThe 9th (Scottish) Division began to detrain at Saint-Omer on 9 May 1915 and completed concentration in France five days later. It was quickly followed by the 14th (Light) and 12th (Eastern) Divisions, both of which were in France before June 1915.

First use of observation balloon
11 May 1915

The 1st Kite Balloon Section proceeded to Steenvoorde for work with the Second Army in the Ypres sector.

First use of flamethrowers
30 July 1915

Units of the German 126th Regiment launched an attack using flammenwerfer against the 14th Light) Division holding front-line positions at Hooge in the Ypres salient. This attack, whilst generally expected as the British had successfully attacked and captured ground here a few days before, was launched with great secrecy and achieved surprise. It caused large numbers of casualties to the British defenders, and pushed the enemy line forward. However, although the flamethrower remained a fearsome weapon, British infantry soon learned to deal with the slow-moving men carrying the cumbersome equipment. The British Army did not adopt the weapon.

First to be formally 'left out of battle'
25 September 1915

When ordered to take part in the first attack in the Battle of Loos, units of the 47th (London) Division left a portion of the officers, NCOs and men behind. The idea was that they would form a cadre on which the unit could be rebuilt if it suffered very heavy losses. This gradually became a standard practice for all Divisions on the Western Front.

First 'Chinese attacks'
25 September 1915

142nd Brigade of the same 47th (London) Division did not attack in the Battle of Loos, but stood their ground to form a defensive flank. In order to add to the confusion of the enemy, alongside a gas and smoke barrage, they erected and moved many wooden dummy soldiers. At a distance through poor visibility, the enemy were uncertain whether they were being attacked, and wasted much attention and ammunition on the dummies. Called a 'Chinese attack', this method of battlefield deception was widely adopted.

First British use of poison gas
25 September 1915

The German Army released gas against French and British (principally Canadian) troops near Ypres on 22 April 1915 and the British retaliated at Loos. [Section on gas warfare]

First air-dropped supplies
27 March 1916

A 70-pound millstone was dropped to the besieged 6th (Poona) Division at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia. A large grain store had been discovered there, but in retreat the Turks had removed the millstones. A total of 140 aircraft sorties were flown, dropping in addition 16,000 pounds of flour, sugar, salt, mail and other supplies at Kut.

First use of Thermite shells
2 July 1916

30th Division's crest of Lord DerbyThermite is an incendiary; thermite shells were designed to set a target ablaze, and were fired by field artillery. They were first used by the gunners of 30th Division, firing on Bernafay Wood on the Somme, on 2 July 1916.

First use of tanks
15 September 1916

Tanks were first deployed as a surprise weapon in the third phase of the 1916 Battle of the Somme, which is known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. [Section on tank warfare]

First parachute-dropped supplies of ammunition
4 July 1918

A constant problem that held up many an advance was the difficulty in keeping the forward troops supplied with ammunition. Not only were supplies heavy and bulky, needing many men and horses to transport them, but the supply routes were under fire and often over destroyed ground where roads were impassible. A solution was tried in the battle which led to the capture of Hamel.