The Boy Behind The Picture

Sometimes we discover a story that’s so remarkable that even though it’s not a member of your own family, we feel compelled to make sure that the story is told.

The photograph of the young boy standing outside the White Star Line offices in London, holding an Evening News poster announcing ‘Titanic Disaster Great Loss of Life’ is one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century, but who was the young boy in the photograph and what was his story? His name remains virtually unknown, but his face is famous around the world. The photograph captures a 15-year-old newspaper boy standing on the pavement outside Oceanic House, the offices of the White Star Line. The photograph was taken on the morning of 16 April 1912, the day after the sinking of the world’s most famous liner, RMS Titanic. His bill-board broke the news to Londoners and that young fresh-faced boy, in the now famous picture was named Ned (Edward) John Parfett and for many years the identity of the newspaper boy remained unknown. Like so many of his generation, Ned’s fate would lie in the hands of a military commander and ultimately his future would be determined by fate and the luck afforded by war, so here is Ned’s story………….

Ned Parfett was born on 21 July 1896 near Waterloo Station, one of six children born to George and Honorah Parfett. The family were devout Catholics with strong Irish connections, and they had lived in Lambeth, South London, or the London area, since the 1850s. Ned was baptized on 30 August 1896 at St George’s Chapel, Southwark, and along with his siblings, he attended St Patrick’s Chapel and School. Ned was an able and diligent boy, being awarded a book, Uncle Boo, as a reward for school attendance in December 1909. The following year Ned left school and quickly followed in his father’s footsteps. George Parfett was a part-time scaffolder who helped construct Westminster Cathedral in the 1890s and he was said to have been a good outdoor speaker and a prominent member of the building trades workers’ union. He was subsequently injured in a building accident that left him lame and he walked with the aid of a stick. Unable to work on the building sites, he turned to selling newspapers with a pitch just at the end of Waterloo Bridge. It was Ned’s decision, to follow in the footsteps of his father, that would change all their lives forever and one which would ultimately lead to one of the most iconic images of the 20th Century.


Ned Parfett was one of four brothers, who served their country during the Great War. The eldest was George Parfett, who enlisted on 28 August 1914 and served in France from July 1915, taking part in the Battle of the Somme. He was later wounded and gassed in October 1917 at Poelcappelle during the 3rd Battle of Ypres. After leaving a ‘home hospital’ he returned to France to fight again in 1918, this time coming through unscathed. He was mustered due to the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and went on to survive the war. Richard Parfett served with the 6th Battalion Leinsters and joined the Army in September 1914. He fought in Gallipoli in May 1915 and later served in Salonika, the Middle East, and finally, France in 1918. He too survived the War. The youngest of the four brothers was Thomas Parfett who was aged 18, he also joined the Royal Field Artillery, as a Driver, but was still in training when the war ended. But Ned’s story is somewhat different to that of his brothers.

Ned was too young for overseas service in 1914 and did not enlist straightaway, but volunteered, most likely under the Derby Scheme in 1915, which allowed him to be called up when required. By early 1916, he was undergoing training, first with the Royal Horse Artillery and then with the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner. He was almost certainly serving abroad by the end of the year, but little is known directly of his career overseas, no letters survive, and only a few photographs, taken at home when he was on leave. One photo was taken on a camera owned by a close friend, Ernest Bufton, a corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps. It shows Ned with a gunner named Baker, washing their hands in the snow near the village of Lupin, near Arras in November 1917. With them stands a Royal Army Medical Corps officer named Captain Harris. In the background are two bicycles, giving credence to the family’s long-standing belief that Ned was a signaller under a forward observation officer.

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(Photograph taken by Ernest Bufton of Gunner Parfett, Gunner Baker and Captain Harris)

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(Reverse of Photograph taken by Ernest Bufton )

In France, Ned served with 126 Battery, Royal Field Artillery, which formed part of the 29th Brigade. This Brigade was in turn serving under the umbrella of the 4th Division. The 4th Division was a regular army division and had been overseas since August 1914, when the British Expeditionary Force set sail for France. In March and April 1918, the Brigade’s war diary shows that Ned was serving near Arras when 126 Battery was involved in some intense action which helped to buy time for the retreating British forces. Ned was one of two signallers working under an officer and was responsible for reeling out and maintaining a telephone wire from the officer back to the battery. Should communications irreparably break down, he would be responsible for relaying messages about enemy targets back to the guns or, if necessary, relaying messages from the gun line back to the brigade or even divisional headquarters, at which time the use of a bicycle was vital.

The German Spring Offensive had begun on 21 March and on dawn on 28 March, the enemy heavily shelled the front and support lines around Arras, and the entire Brigade was called upon to open a counter barrage. By early morning, news arrived that the enemy had cut the wire in front of the British trenches. There was also a strong smell of gas around headquarters and the battery positions. By 7 am, all telephone communication with 126 Battery were broken, and this was followed shortly afterwards, by the sight of multiple SOS rockets fired by the infantry all along the section of the front. The Germans had broken into the trench system. They were shelled by all the batteries in the brigade, but the guns were hampered by the breakdown of communication with their observation posts, where Ned would have been working under heavy shellfire. In the morning, 126 Battery had lost one gun, blown up by an enemy shell. However of all the guns in the Brigade, 126 Battery was the only one with direct sight of the enemy and they were able to destroy two limbers (a limber is a two-wheeled cart designed to support the trail of an artillery piece) and kill or injure a large number of enemy troops before the remaining five guns were forced to withdraw. It had been an intense engagement. Ten days later, on 7 April, Ned Parfett was mentioned in Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig’s despatches for work undertaken during exceptionally difficult circumstances in the first weeks of the German offensive in March 1918.

The citation read;

The Devotion to duty and good work which has won you this honour does you great credit, and your example is of the greatest value, not only to your battery, but also to the whole of the Royal Artillery.’

The German offensive continued until June, with limited results, and by July their attacks had petered out. In August the Allies dramatically turned the tables and from that time on, there would only be one winner; it was just a question of how long the final victory would take. In London, the reaction was altogether different. Jubilant civilians were singing and dancing in the streets, celebrating the Armistice. Ned Parfett’s sister Nellie was working as a waitress at Spears and Ponds Catering Company when she got wind of the celebrations outside and left her work. She was one of those who made her way to the home of the Lord Mayor of London at Mansion House, on Queen Victoria Street. Crowds of people were waiting for the official announcement that an Armistice had come into force. Everyone was cheering, and in the spirit of the moment, Nellie’s arm went into the air, waving, just as the Lord Mayor made his proclamation that the guns had finally fallen silent on the Western Front. It was only an Armistice, but as far as the public was concerned, the war was over. Yet, as the Mayor said his words, Nellie’s arm inexplicably fell to her side. She recalled at the time, being surprised by her own reaction, but she had no idea of the real significance of what this involuntary action meant.

While men in France and Belgium were caught off-guard by the sudden cessation of hostilities, the expectation was that the German Army would retreat to the Rhine and fight on, defending the fatherland for all it was worth. Victory might come, but not in 1918. Throughout September and October, the Germans had fought a rolling retreat, and once their last major line of defence, the formidable Hindenburg Line, had been broken, open warfare had largely been resumed and the trenches were left behind. Three weeks before the Armistice, the 4th Division was advancing towards the small river of Ecaillon near the Belgian town of Valenciennes. The Germans were dug in on the far side of the river, dominating the high ground. They had dug a trench system known as the Hermann Stellung, protected by belts of barbed wire, but this was no Hindenburg Line. This was a a rudimentary series of disconnected trenches and isolated posts protected by machine guns. Orders were received that the Division would attack in the early hours of 24 October.

Two battalions were charged with crossing the river and taking the Stellung. The 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Light Infantry were to take the village of Verchain, crossing the river, attacking the German defences and seizing the high ground and The 1st Somerset Light Infantry were directed to cross the river slightly to the north and break into the enemy’s trench system. The remaining battalions in the Brigade would then continue the advance to a village two miles further on. In all, four objectives were set for the division, each coloured on a map blue, yellow, red and green. It was an ambitious target. At 4 am, supported by a steady barrage of shells fired by six brigades of artillery, the Duke of Wellington’s attacked in conjunction with the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment. By daybreak, the village had been seized and the river reached. The rain had swollen what was often little more than a stream, and the water, although not more than four feet deep, was still twenty feet wide and fast running. Portable bridges had been constructed and carried to the river but most of the men simply dashed down the embankment and crossed with the water up to their armpits. The river was forded with little opposition and the men rushed the trenches of the Hermann Stellung.

A sunken road, which was still in enemy hands, held up the advance and the artillery was called upon to shell the road. Once again, Ned Parfett would have been heavily engaged, working with an observation officer, Lieutenant Percy Hunt. Ned’s roles would have been focused on maintaining the telephone and communications, as well as relaying ranges and trajectories back to the guns. In the late afternoon, a second assault was made, once again under a barrage of shells and the attack was entirely successful. The enemy’s resistance had collapsed, forcing them to withdraw over two thousand yards. The Somerset Light Infantry had crossed the river on pontoons under fire, a few casualties had been caused by the impetuosity of the men who were felled by their own artillery barrage. Ned Parfett’s battery had been closely involved with the action and the village of Querenaing also fell with little opposition and the guns of the Brigade were called to move forward to fresh positions, with 126 Battery moving a mile northeast of Verchain. Other battalions in the brigade continued the rolling offensive and the Somerset Light Infantry and the Duke of Wellington’s Regiments were withdrawn to billets in Verchain. In a week, the Division had advanced nearly five and a half miles, a remarkable achievement in the context of the Great War’s drawn-out battles of attrition. Both battalions had a chance to rest up and with the grim task of recovering and burying their fallen comrades. They fought together, they died together and now they were buried alongside each other. They were buried a mile northwest of the village of Verchain. In all, twenty-nine men of the 1st Somerset Light Infantry and forty-two of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment were buried in three rows, as well as a handful of men from other units in the Division.

On 26 October the attack was resumed, but by the next day, reports were received that the Germans appeared to be preparing to counter-attack. 126 Battery, along with others in the brigade, swept the area to break up any concentrations of infantry. By the 28 October the front was quiet and no action of note was recorded. Another attack was proposed and the artillery of the Brigade was made ready. The Brigade’s batteries continued to occupy the enemy when news came through that any advance was to be postponed for twenty-four hours; this was later extended for a further day. On 29 October, the War Diary of the 29th Brigade recorded, ‘No change in situation. Parties of enemy engaged by our fire and normal harassing fire during the night.’

It was the one thought that nobody spoke about, it filled every waking hour, but it was too early, perhaps too dangerous, for any man to believe he might actually survive the war, but for Ned Parfett there was reason to be optimistic, he was about to go on leave. Ned had only been on leave once before in the two years he had served abroad, and now he was given instructions that he could return once more to England. He could not have known it, but his leave, and the time it would take him to return to his unit, would coincide nicely with the Armistice; even by 29 October, a ceasefire was being mooted by the German military commanders to the Allied forces. Ned was instructed to go to the Quarter Master’s stores, here he would be given a clean uniform before leaving on a train for the coast and the ship that would take him home. It was late in the evening and enemy artillery had become a little heavier. In the stores, Ned waited with two other men from 126 Battery, Gunner William Scott, a lad from Manchester, and Saddler Corporal Henry Strachan, a 29-year-old married man from Plumstead, London. Whether any of the men heard the shell that hit the stores is unknown. A reconnaissance report of the 4th Division Artillery covering a 24-hour period, 29/30 October, noted that enemy howitzers were active in the early afternoon, while four German guns were recorded as having opened fire during the night in the vicinity of Verchain. It is quite likely that it was a shell from one of these guns that hit the Quarter Master’s stores with devastating consequences. When the dust settled, all three men were found dead. Casualties were always a matter of great regret but expected in war, however, the circumstances surrounding these deaths were particularly heart-rending. Ned, as his family was soon to discover, was not only due to go on leave but had also been recommended for the Military Medal, an award he did not live to see. All three men had seen considerable action: Ned, with two years’ service overseas, was by any measure a seasoned soldier, but Gunner William Scott had served even longer, having been in France since November 1915. In many ways, the most poignant death of all was that of Henry Strachan, a Scotsman from Edinburgh. He had sailed with the Brigade way back in August 1914 and had been involved in the retreat from Mons. To have survived the entire war to die just days before its end must have been the bitterest of blows to his family.

The three men were buried next to one another in Verchain British Military Cemetery. It already contained 83 casualties from the previous five days’ fighting. Most, if not all, were men from the 4th Division. Ned and his comrades were added to a fourth row of dead, directly in front of the men his battery had helped to support in their attack five days earlier. Unlike so many other cemeteries on the Western Front, this graveyard did not grow much larger. By the time the last of the casualties were buried, on 1 November, the war had already moved on and peace reigned once again around the villages of Verchain and Querenaing. There were 110 men buried in the cemetery.

In England, the immediate Armistice celebrations over, Nellie Parfett returned to the normality of work. In her spare time, as a member of the congregation of St Patrick’s church, she was often to be found in the church hall undertaking voluntary work. One day, as she was in the Sacristy, a friend of the family and fellow Congregationalist, Edward Long, came in to say that her parents had received an official letter from the army, Ned had been killed. Nellie fainted and in the years to come, she would look back on Armistice Day and the inexplicable incident and she was sure that her arm dropping to her side, was an unconscious premonition of her brother’s death. George Parfett’s two eldest sons were still serving abroad when the news reached them. Richard was on his way to Germany and the Army of Occupation. His brother George, having recovered from the influenza pandemic that killed so many that summer, was still in Belgium when he wrote to the Headquarters of the 29th Brigade to inquire as to what had happened to his younger brother. On 30 November, he received a reply.

‘Referring to your enquiry about your brother’s death, I much regret to inform you he was killed when the Brigade was near VERCHAIN, near which place he was buried. At the time of his death he was in the Q.M. Stores, and a shell fell on the stores, killing him outright.

Verchain is about 10 miles S.E. of Valenciennes.

I wish to inform you how highly we valued his services, and I recommended him for his Military Medal which in every way he had won. On many occasions he accompanied me during severe shelling and I always placed the greatest confidence in him.

Yours Truly

PW Hunt

2nd Lieutenant’

Ned's letter

(Letter to Gunner Parfett from 2nd Lieutenant Hunt)

Three weeks later, on 20 December 1918, The South London Press commemorated the service of all four Parfett brothers inside its pages:

‘South London’s Roll of Honour, Four Fighting Brothers. North Lambeth Family’s Notable Record.’ It wrote, ‘Among the many records of fighting families must be included that of the four sons of Mr George Parfett, 50, Ethelmst, Cornwall rd, Waterloo rd, whose four sons have served their country, one to the death, after being honoured by his grateful King. In October, in a specially severe tussle, he acquitted himself so well as to earn the coveted distinction of a Military Medal, and it was hard when near the end of the fighting he fell near Verchain’.

Pictures of the four brothers appeared; three, the paper explained, had seen active service, while the fourth, Thomas Parfett, aged 18, had also joined the Royal Field Artillery but was still in training when the war ended. Of Ned Parfett, the paper wrote that he had won his Military Medal shortly before his death.

Scan 2020-10-4 10.02.04

(The South London Press Dated 20 December 1918)

The London Gazette Supplement 13 March 1919 reported the following:

His Majesty The King has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of the Military Medal for bravery in the Field to the undermentioned Warrant Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers and Men:


(The London Gazette Supplement 13 March 1919)

The records show that Ned was awarded The Military medal, The Victory Medal, The British War Medal, The Memorial Plaque, as well as receiving a “mention in despatches”.

Parfett MC 1

(British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920)


(The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; WWI Service Medal and Award Rolls; Class: WO 329; Ref: 139)

Ned's death plaque

(Memorial Plaque for Edward John Parfett)

Military Medal

A letter congratulating Ned on his mention in despatches was also quoted. It was, according to the paper, signed by General Allenby, although the General was then serving in the Middle East. Whoever it was signed by, Ned’s devotion to his service was clear.

Note; A Mention in Despatches was instituted during the Great War and continued to be awarded for active service up to August 10th, 1920. It was worn on the ribbon of the Victory Medal unless the Victory Medal had not been issued in which case it was worn on the ribbon of the British War Medal and consisted of a Bronze spray of oak leaves. In August 1920, the emblem was altered to a single bronze oak-leave emblem, worn on the ribbon of the appropriate campaign medal, and in 1993 the emblem was changed from bronze to silver.

The following year a letter arrived. It was from Ernest Bufton, the friend on whose camera the picture in the snow at Lupin had been taken back in November 1917:

September 3rd 1919

Mr E. H. Bufton presents his compliments to Mr G Parfett….

I was a friend of Gunner E Parfett att HQ 29th Bde being then a Corporal in the Royal Army Medical Corps. I was very fond of Parfett and everyone else was and very sorry indeed to have to part with him being one of the best of friends one could ever wish for and liked and trusted by all officers, NCOs and men in the Brigade….perhaps sometime when you have time you would come over and see me or I would meet you somewhere as I would very much like to see someone who belonged to him.

Please accept my very deepest sympathy and my very best wishes and hope I am not troubling you.

I remain

Yours sincerely

E. H. Bufton

Scan 2020-10-4 10.00.08

(Photograph of Ned taken by his friend Ernest Bufton)

L to R): Kit, Tom, Ned and Nellie (taken in 1917 in Waterloo)

(Kit, Tom, Ned and Nellie taken in 1917 in Waterloo)


(Ned Parfett)

After his death Ned’s family were entitled to a War Gratuity benefit from the Army, which was duly paid to his father George on 26th February 1919 for the sum of £24.3.2. His father also received a pension of 10 shillings per week. The payment sheet and pension cards are shown below;

Soldiers Effects

(National Army Museum; Chelsea, London, England; Soldiers’ Effects Records, 1901-60; NAM Accession Number: 1991-02-333; Record Number Ranges: 164501-166000; Reference: 62)

A detailed explanation of how the War Gratuity was calculated and paid can be found here on a blog written by Craig from The Great War Forum. War Gratuity

Parfett, Edward John (128981)

(Pension Record Card)

Parfett, Edouard John (128981)

(Claimants Pension Card)

Ned’s belongings were returned to England, including a small devotional Catholic prayer book which he had kept with him, presumably in a breast pocket. The book had taken some of the impact of the shell: its cover was torn and there was an indentation where shrapnel had hit. A bandolier, left on his last leave home, was also kept by his parents, his mother hanging it in an alcove in the sitting room next to a crucifix and a large framed picture of Ned, with pictures of Ned’s brothers and sisters. It became a shrine to the memory of her dearly departed son. The prayer book survived and was given to Ned’s nephew, also called Ned. Ned Walsh, born in 1924, was named in his uncle’s honour.

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(Prayer Card from Ned’s mother Anne, found in his personal effects, with a rather moving message)

Ned is buried, near to where he fell, in the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Verchain, Maugre in France.

Ned Parfett grave

(Ned’s Headstone at Verchain Cemetery, France)


(Verchain Cemetery, France)

In 1950, Ned Walsh went on a bicycle tour, passing through towns and villages of France, before he reached the village of Verchain and the cemetery where his uncle was buried. In the visitor’s book kept behind a small metal door in the cemetery wall, Ned found the name of the man employed by the then Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission with caring for the cemetery. He lived in Solemes, a neighbouring village, and Ned went to visit him. The gardener was named Archie Mowat, a former infantryman in the Scottish Rifles. After the Great War, he had married a French woman and had settled down; his son had recently been killed in the Second World War. Archie was the original gardener who had tended the cemetery since 1919 or 1920 when the stone walls and the Portland stone headstones had been erected. He had looked after Ned Parfett for over thirty years, and he and his wife looked after his nephew too, for two days, until the bicycle tour was resumed. Five years later, Ned Parfett’s then 63-year-old sister Nellie made her only visit to her brother’s grave. Family members have continued to visit ever since.


(Ned’s Sisters, Kit on the left and Nellie on the right)

The surviving members of Ned’s family also took part in a requiem held in his honour in 1968 which featured in The London Press, see the newspaper clipping below:

Scan 2020-10-4 10.05.01

There is a rather poignant postscript to Ned’s story, that I also felt compelled to share with you.

Since his first time as a 15-year-old Army cadet, John Shepherd has played the Last Post at more Remembrance Day services than he cares to remember, but the one such moment stands out more than all the others, a trip he made to the First World War battlefields in France with his son John.

John had been diagnosed with cancer and was to die within the year, but he had wanted to see the places where his grandfather, Mr Shepherd’s father, had fought in the First World War. The grandfather had been gassed and wounded at Passchendaele, but thankfully he survived and went on to marry and have children. It was while visiting the war cemetery at Verchain-Maugré in France, that Mr Shepherd and his son were led by a local Frenchman to the grave of Ned Parfett, a Gunner in the Royal Artillery. Mr Shepherd, who was aged 88 at the time said: “We held a little ceremony and I played the Last Post over his grave. It seemed appropriate.”

An iconic image, captured over a century ago, of a young man, full of ambition and endeavour, with his whole future ahead of him. Little did he know at the time, that his life would be cut so tragically short at the hands of the German Army and how his face would become instantly recognised around the world and forever remembered with one of History’s most famous moments.


With special thanks to Dominic Walsh, the great nephew of Ned Parfett, who kindly allowed me to share with you Ned’s story and allowed me to use all the photographs that you see here. I would also like to extend my sincere thanks and gratitude to Charlie Haas, President of The Titanic International Society who has very graciously allowed me to use some of his article that first appeared in the quarterly journal of the Titanic International Society.

© 2021 by Charles A. Haas. All rights reserved. First published in issue 114 of Voyage, the quarterly journal of Titanic International Society, Midland Park, New Jersey USA, Winter 2021. Published by permission of the author. You can find out more about The Titanic International Society on their website and Facebook pages:

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22 thoughts on “The Boy Behind The Picture

  1. Wow what a story, he must have been very brave as my father did the same in WWII in Malaya , he said the scariest thing was going out and mending the line when it was broken at night , he said that shells flying overhead sounded like freight trains .

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Your so right , they built them strong back then, I’m sure I would have fell by the wayside as I’m a weakling when it comes to the winter let alone rain and snow.

        Liked by 1 person

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