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World War One: Theresa May pays respects in France and Belgium

Theresa May lays a wreath at the grave of John ParrImage copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Theresa May laid wreaths at the graves of the first and last British soldiers killed in the conflict

Theresa May has laid a wreath at the graves of the first and last UK soldiers killed in World War One on a trip to France and Belgium.

Visiting the St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons with the Belgian leader, the PM thanked fallen soldiers for being “staunch to the end”.

She then travelled to France where she and Emmanuel Macron paid their respects at the Thiepval Memorial.

The visit is to mark the Armistice Centenary this Sunday.

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During the ceremony at Mons on Friday morning, accompanied by Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, the prime minister laid wreaths at the graves of Londoner John Parr, the first UK soldier to be killed in 1914, and the last, George Ellison.

Mr Ellison, who was born in York and lived in Leeds, was killed on the Western Front at 09:30 GMT, before the Armistice came into effect at 11:00, 100 years ago this Sunday.

Their graves are opposite each other at the cemetery.

Messages on poppy wreaths were taken from poems, with the one on Mr Ellison’s grave reading: “They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted. We will remember them.”

Mrs May chose lines from Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier for Mr Parr’s grave, “in that rich earth a richer dust concealed”.

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Image caption Mrs May quoted a 1914 poem by Laurence Binyon, in a card left at the grave of George Ellison
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Image caption Lines from a Rupert Brooke poem were written on the card left at Mr Parr’s grave
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Image caption Theresa May bowed her head at the grave of Private Ellison, the last British soldier to be killed in the war

On the way to the cemetery in Mons, a policeman on a motorbike was hurt when a vehicle tried to drive between Mrs May and Mr Michel’s convoys – not realising there were two separate convoys.

A spokesman for Mr Michel said the policeman and another officer, who was also on a motorbike, “had to manoeuvre so as not to crash into that car” and “narrowly escaped crashing into the Belgian prime minister’s vehicle”.

The officer fell off his bike and was “injured but not heavily so”, the spokesman said. Mr Michel got out of his car to make sure the policeman was OK and waited for an ambulance to arrive.

Mrs May and her companions were in front so did not see what happened but were briefed afterwards.

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Image caption Mrs May stood alongside Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel at the ceremony at the St Symphorien Military Cemetery

Mrs May and Mr Michel later attended a reception, where they met British and Belgian serving members of the armed forces.

The prime minister has now travelled to France to meet Mr Macron in Albert, a town in the heart of the Somme region of France which suffered heavy bombardment during World War One.

Mrs May and the French president also took part in a private meeting and working lunch before attending the war cemetery.

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Image caption The two leaders laid a wreath at the French-British memorial at Thiepval in northern France
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The pair were also shown graves at the cemetery

The two leaders then attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the nearby Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates more than 70,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers.

A wreath combining the poppy and le bleuet (or cornflower) – the two national emblems of remembrance for Britain and France – was made for the occasion.

Mrs May said the visit was a chance to reflect on the time the countries spent fighting side by side in Europe, but also to look ahead to a “shared future, built on peace, prosperity and friendship”.

She said the ceremony at Mons was “a fitting and poignant symbol” for “every member of the armed forces who gave their lives to protect what we hold so dear”.

“We remember the heroes who lost their lives in the horror of the trenches. As the sun sets on 100 years of remembrance, we will never forget their sacrifice.”

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