The gravestone of a young soldier mourned as New Zealand's first casualty of World War I is so weathered that details of his sacrifice have been erased by time.

Sapper Robert Arthur Hislop, 21, was critically injured when he fell from the Parnell rail bridge on the night of August 13, 1914 - eight days after New Zealand joined Britain in war against the German Empire. Hislop, a Territorial and member of the New Zealand Corps of Railway Engineers, died from his injuries on August 19.

He was buried in Waikumete Cemetery with full military honours after being described as New Zealand's first casualty of World War I.

Cemetery records show that his gravestone bears the words: "In memory of Sapper Robert Hislop No 2 Company North Island Railway Battalion NZ Engineers the first NZ soldier to give his life during the Great War accidentally killed while on duty guarding the Parnell bridge." But the words and symbols are no longer visible on the worn headstone.


Though Hislop's death was reported as New Zealand's first war casualty, the Ministry of Defence considers that unfortunate honour belongs to Ludolph Edwin Wynn West, a 19-year-old gunner who died from pneumonia at Awapuni Mobilisation Camp on August 25, 1914. The historic acknowledgment only came in 2006.

His burial plot in Palmerston North's Terrace End Cemetery is an official war grave.

In contrast, Hislop's sad-looking plot sprouts weeds through cracks in his concrete mound.

A Ministry of Culture and Heritage spokesman said the question of whether Hislop should be considered a war casualty hinged on whether he was enlisted at the time of his death.

"We would need to do a bit of research on this case so there is no quick answer available."