Able Seaman Victor McKey HMS Amphion 1914With the centenary of the start of the First World War now being commemorated, it is appropriate to look at the first British fatalities of this conflict. This is a matter of some debate, as questions arise as to whether military and naval deaths immediately after the outbreak of war at 11pm on 4 August should be considered, or if the first casualties should be those who died as a result of accidents caused by the mobilisation, or if the strict interpretation is those fatalities caused as a result of enemy action.

Although not recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as the individual was a civilian Richard van Emden has made a case for Henry Hadley being the "first casualty". Hadley, a former army officer working as a teacher in Berlin, was aware of the mounting tension in Europe. No doubt the German declaration of war on Russia on 1 August helped him to decide to leave the country. He was travelling from Berlin to Paris with his housekeeper and was shot on 3 August.

... Henry Hadley and his house-keeper were well on their way home and not far from either the Dutch or Belgian border. Their train, though, had stopped at Gelsenkirchen. After the altercation in the dining car, they had returned to their carriage but Henry had ventured into the corridor while the train was stationary. After about a minute, Elizabeth heard loud noises followed by sounds of a scuffle. She rushed outside to find Henry lying on the floor. 'They have shot me, Mrs Pratley, I am a done man,' he gasped. A German officer, later identified as Lieutenant Nicolay, had fired his revolver at point-blank range, hitting Henry in the stomach.

Richard van Emden - Meeting the Enemy: The Human Face of the Great War

Hadley was taken by ambulance to the Evangelical Hospita' in Gelsenkirchen, and died there at 3.15 am local time on 5 August – just three hours after Britain declared war on Germany.

Turning to military deaths, the CWGC database records 4 men who died on 4 August. War was declared in Britain at 11pm (UK time; midnight in Berlin) on that day, it is likely that these deaths took place during the course of the 4th rather than in the one hour between war being declared and midnight. The 4 records on the CWGC database are Private G Davies, Boy Servant Ernest Brackley (aged 16), Private Joseph Viles, and, in India, Staff Serjeant SE West.

HMS Amphion

The first major loss of life was at sea. On the first full day of the First World War, HMS Amphion, a light cruiser under the command of Captain Cecil Fox, was leading the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla, which was tasked with defending the eastern approaches to the English Channel. In accordance with a pre-arranged plan the flotilla was undertaking a patrol in the area of the Thames Estuary, en route to the Heligoland Bight.


Image: HMS Amphion courtesy of

Some hours earlier the Germans had sent out a holiday ferry, the Königin Luise, which had been converted to lay mines. Disguised in the black, buff, and yellow colours of the steamers of the Great Eastern Railway, the minelayer had been spotted laying mines by a fishing trawler. This was reported to the Amphion, which, together with two destroyers, went to investigate and - at 10.25 in the morning, spotted and then chased down and fired on the German vessel. The captain of the Königin Luise realised that he stood no chance of getting away and decided to scuttle the ship just after noon on 5 August. These first shots of the war were fired by HMS Lance.


Image: A 'Laforey' class destroyer, of the same type as HMS Lance

After picking up a number of survivors, the Amphion carried on with her patrol and in the early hours of 6 August headed back to home waters.

Amphion changed course to avoid a minefield and, by 6.30 am, she was assumed to be clear. However, a mine was indeed detonated, wrecking the fore part of the ship, starting a fire and breaking her back. The order to abandon ship was given. Moments later another explosion occurred, which was either the ship's magazine exploding or a second mine. HMS Amphion went down quickly. Of the men on board, about 174 (including Captain Fox) survived, but a total of 149 crew plus 18 German prisoners of war were lost. Amongst them was Able Seaman Victor McKey.


Image: Captain Cecil Fox of HMS Amphion courtesy of



Image: McKey was from Coventry Road, Yardley in Birmingham. His older brother Corporal Matthew Charles was killed while serving with 1st Birmingham Pals during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. His nephew and niece (the children of his sister) are still alive but were born after the Great War. Victor McKey is commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial (image courtesy of Mark Hone) 

The explosion was so large that two nearby destroyers were damaged when Amphion blew up. HMS Lark was hit by a 4 inch shell from the Amphion, killing her sole German prisoner and wounding two of her seamen. Meanwhile HMS Linnet was narrowly missed by a 4 inch gun which was thrown in the air. This destroyer was showered with splinters and struck by one of Amphion's bunker lids.


Image: HMS Amphion - the first British Naval loss of the First World War (image courtesy of the Imperial War Museums Q 43259)

The vast majority of the men lost on HMS Amphion are commemorated on the Plymouth Naval Memorial. However, the bodies of four men were recovered and identified; they are now buried at Shotley (St Mary) Churchyard, south of Ipswich.


Image: Shotley (St Mary) Churchyard

Gifted pilot and his air mechanic killed

When the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was getting ready for its first deployment, even crossing the Channel was fraught with difficulties and dangers. The first deaths of airmen occurred on 12 August in the UK.

The inquest tells the story of what happened.

About a quarter past five o'clock Second-Lieutenant Robin B Skene, of the Third Squadron, accompanied by Raymond Keith Barlow, a first air mechanic in the corps, ascended from Netheravon sheds in a Bristol monoplane which was ready for active service. That the aeroplane was not loaded to a dangerous extent is shown by the fact that several other machines left the school carrying similar weights without accident. The monoplane had not proceeded far on its journey when the pilot in taking a left-handed turn banked sharply. The result was that the machine lost speed and dived vertically to the ground. Lieutenant Skene was found under the wrecked monoplane, while Barlow was pitched clear of it. Both died before medical aid could be obtained....The Squadron Commander of the Royal Flying School said that after the accident he examined the machine, which was completely wrecked. It had evidently fallen almost vertically but not from a great height. The controls were all intact. The machine was heavily loaded for active service, but was able to fly. He understood that Lieutenant Skene was a capable pilot.

Arthur Frederick Deverill, first air mechanic, Royal Flying Corps, an eye-witness, said he attributed the accident to the loss of speed in banking. This was the first time the machine had been so heavily loaded, but if precaution had been exercised flight would have been safe. Several machines left that day with the same load. The monoplane was at the height of about 150ft or 200ft when it dived vertically to the ground. The engine was running at full speed until the fatal turn.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death (South Wiltshire Coroner's Inquests 1868-1920)


Image: a Royal Flying Corp Bleriot monoplane


Image: 2/Lt Robin Skene

Robin Reginald Skene was born in London on 6 August 1891, and was an eminent pre-war pilot, trained at the Bristol School at Brooklands before qualifying for Royal Aero Club Certificate No 568, issued on 21 July 1913. He gained a measure of fame by being the first British pilot to loop an aeroplane and worked as an instructor at the Bristol School. On 15 November 1913 he was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant in the RFC Special Reserve. As War drew near, Robin continued to instruct pupils on Martinsyde machines, but was ordered to join No 3 Squadron when the Army mobilised.


Image: the Pension Record Card for Barlow from the WFA's Pension Record Archive.

2/Lt R R Skene is buried at Send (St Mary's) Churchyard in Surrey, and AMI R K Barlow is buried in Bulford Church Cemetery, Wiltshire.

First RFC fatalities in France, 16 August

The first three squadrons to join the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) flew across the Channel without incident on 13 August and, after a stop at Amiens, moved forward to the fortress town of Maubeuge in northern France on 16 August.

The move to Maubeuge was not without cost, as 2/Lt Evelyn Perry and AMII Herbert Parfitt were killed when their BE8 crashed and caught fire at Amiens aerodrome. It is likely that the aeroplane was overloaded and stalled at about 150 feet, too low to permit the pilot to take corrective action.

Evelyn Walter Copland Perry was born in London on 4 December 1890. After leaving Trinity College, Cambridge he joined the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, where he worked from February 1911 to August 1912 before joining T O M Sopwith's aviation company. Royal Aero Club Certificate No 130 was gained on a Valkyrie Monoplane at Hendon on 30 August 1911. Like many civilian pilots, Evelyn applied for a commission in the RFC Special Reserve, and was gazetted as a Second Lieutenant on 21 March 1913. Hence, on 1 August, he was ordered to report to No 3 Sqn, and went to France with his unit.


Image: 2/Lt Evelyn Perry (courtesy of

Herbert Edward Parfitt, from Croydon, was a direct entrant to the RFC on 27 May 1913. He was 21 when he was killed.

2/Lt Evelyn Perry is buried in Grave 7 at St Acheul French National Cemetery at Amiens, and AMII Herbert Parfitt is buried in the adjacent Grave 6.

The next RFC fatality was Frederick Geard on 18 August. Corporal Geard was flying as observer in BE8 No 391 of No 5 Sqn, flown by 2Lt R R Smith-Barry, and he was killed when the aeroplane crashed at Peronne due to 'control failure' with fatal consequences for the observer and two broken legs for the pilot.


Image: a prototype BE8 (note the undivided cockpits)

Frederick John Parsons Geard was born in 1892, the second son of John and Amelia Geard of Dover. He was educated at Herne Bay before joining the Royal Engineers at Woolwich on 1 September 1910. After a course of training at Chatham he was posted to the Balloon Section of the Engineers at Aldershot in January 1911. He then belonged to No 1 Aeroplane Section (RE), was appointed Airman Rigger in September 1911, and the following year transferred to the RFC.

Cpl F J P Geard is buried in Grave No 510 at Peronne Communal Cemetery.


Image: the Pension Record Card for Geard.

First combat fatalities in the RFC

Just four days after the death of Cpl Geard, the first combat deaths were suffered by the Royal Flying Corps. 2/Lt Vincent Waterfall (pilot) and Lt Gordon Bayly (observer) were flying an Avro 504 when their aeroplane was brought down by enemy ground fire on 22 August 1914. The airmen had departed on a reconnaissance mission at 10.15am.


Image: the Shuttleworth Collection's Avro 504K. Taken at old Warden's Summer Show 2009.

Charles George Gordon Bayly was born in Rondebosch, Cape Colony, South Africa, on 30 May 1891, the only son of Brackenbury Bayly of the Cape Civil Service, and his wife Beatrice. He was the great-nephew of Major-General Charles George "Chinese" Gordon, the great British soldier who died in the Sudan when Khartoum was overwhelmed by Madhist forces in 1885. Gordon, as Bayly was known, was first educated at Diocesan College School, South Africa, before moving to England to attend St Edmund's Preparatory School at Hindhead before gaining a scholarship to St Paul's School at Kensington, where he represented the school at rugby and played in the second eleven at cricket. In addition, he boxed and shot for his house, winning the shooting prize for his house in his last year at school.


Image: Gordon Bayly. Image courtesy of Great Britain, Royal Aero Club Aviators' Certificates, 1910-1950 [database on-line]. (Royal Aero Club index cards and photographs are in the care of the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon, London.)

After school he joined the Army as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, His first posting with the Royal Engineers was to Chatham. It was while he was at Chatham in 1912 that he decided to learn to fly.

After Chatham, Gordon was posted to the 56th Field Company at Bulford Camp, Salisbury Plain. While stationed there he was promoted to Lieutenant on 31 July 1913. In May 1914 he successfully applied for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps and was selected to join a course at the Central Flying School at Upavon. Here, Gordon studied the emerging use of wireless telegraphy from aeroplanes.

Gordon's time at the flying school was cut short by the declaration of war against Germany on 4 August, after which training was curtailed and the airmen then stationed at Upavon were sent to RFC squadrons. Lt Bayly was posted to No 5 Sqn at Gosport (Fort Grange), with excellent comments in his confidential report including the line: "Very good indeed as a pilot and his capabilities as an officer being above average."

Vincent Waterfall was born in Grimsby on 25 May 1891. He was commissioned in the 3rd Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment, on 27 January 1912 after service as a Corporal in the Brighton College Contingent, Officers' Training Corps. He trained as a pilot at the Vickers School in 1913 and gained RAeC Certificate No 461 on 22 April 1914. The pages of Flight for 1913 and 1914 trace his flying career, as he evolved from performing simple straight flights and circuits to more complex manoeuvres. In many ways, his progress was very similar to that of Gordon Bayly and his education can be regarded as that typical of a pre-war pilot. By April 1914 he was described as being "thoroughly at home on the new Martinsyde monoplane" and went on to become the Martinsyde Company's pilot.


Image: 2/Lt Vincent Waterfall (courtesy of

The bodies of Lt Bayly and 2/Lt Waterfall were initially hastily buried by the Germans in 10 centimetres of soil, but they were later exhumed by M Louviau, the owner of the land on which they had fallen. Their bodies were placed in zinc coffins which were then hidden in his distillery cellar to await a more suitable burial. Both airmen are now buried in Tournai Communal Cemetery, Belgium; Lt C G G Bayly in Grave III.G.3 and 2/Lt V Waterfall is next to him in Grave III.G.4.

First infantry fatality

It is widely reported that the first British soldier (as distinct from sailor or airman) to be killed on the Western Front as a result of enemy action in the First World War was Private John Parr of the 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. Although Parr's claim is unlikely to be challenged, there are a number of earlier fatalities - commemorated or buried in France - who are worthy of mention. The earliest French commemoration on the CWGC's database is for Private George Gooch who is noted as being killed as early as 11 August (a week after war broke out and before any significant numbers of troops had crossed to France). It is almost certainly the case that this date for Gooch is incorrect. Data held by the CWGC can shed no further light on this.


Image: Unfortunately, and unusually, the date of death of George Gooch is not clarified on his Pension Record Card. The space for "date and cause of death" simply notes "missing (notified 20/11/15)" from the WFA's Pension Record Archive.

The first 'correct' French commemoration is for Private Duncan MacDonald who died on 13 August. It is likely that his death was as a result of falling overboard from the transport vessel (the battalion landed in Le Havre on 14 August). His Pension Record Card (below) indicates him as "missing". He has no known grave and is commemorated on La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial.


Image: the Pension Record Card for MacDonald from the WFA's Pension Record Archive


Image: La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial.

Just three days after the death of Private McDonald came the death of the first medium ranking officer to be commemorated in France by the CWGC.

The story of Major Arthur Hughes-Onslow is fascinating. He has an obituary in Wisden, the cricket publication:

Born in 1862, died on August 17, whilst on service with the British Expeditionary Force. He was in the Eton XI in 1880, when he scored 41 and 0 v. Winchester and 24 and 6 v. Harrow. He was then described as A good bat, hitting well and hard; a fair field. He was also well-known as a steeple-chase rider, an Association footballer, and a rider to hounds, and three times rode the winner of the Grand Military Steeplechase at Sandown.

Details courtesy of


Image: Major Arthur Hughes-Onslow (courtesy of John Fergusson)

Major Arthur Hughes-Onslow is now buried at Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre. How he met his end whilst crossing to France is detailed in this web article: these details are confirmed by the CWGC exhumation report.


Article and images contributed by David Tattersfield, Development Trustee, The Western Front Association



My thanks to Gareth Morgan of Australian WWI Aero Historians - - for details of the first RFC casualties. Also to John Fergusson for the background to Arthur Hughes-Onslow and to Mark Hone for his contribution of the Victor McKey image and information.


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