Florence, the last Great War veteran in Britain, turns 110
Norfolk woman is one of only three people still alive who served in 1914-18 conflict
Sunday 20 February 2011
The revels were not quite as wild as on Armistice Day. Still, there was plenty to celebrate yesterday when the world's last surviving female veteran of the First World War celebrated her 110th birthday.
Florence Green, from King's Lynn, Norfolk, was 17 years old when she joined the Women's Royal Air Force, in the late summer of 1918. Come the 11th day of the 11th month, she was working as a waitress at RAF Marham, when the pilots greeted news of the German surrender by clambering into their planes and bombing nearby RAF Narborough airfield with bags of flour. Narborough, not to be outdone, retaliated with their own daring raid, this time dropping bags of soot.
Yesterday the Air Force marked Mrs Green's birthday with the delivery of a rather more traditional nature: a cake. At 110, Mrs Green joins a highly exclusive club of "supercentenarians" – only around one in 1,000 of those with a letter from the Queen on the mantelpiece push on to this next landmark.
When asked what it's like to be 110, Mrs Green, who lives with her daughter May, quite the spring chicken at just 89, was rather philosophical: "It's not much different to being 109," she said, which seems plausible, though of course very few get to find out. Of the flying flour and soot war of Norfolk, 1918, she said simply: "It seems like such a long time ago now." To put it into context, she married her husband Walter, a railway porter, in 1920, and they had three children together. He died 50 years later, and that was 41 years ago.
Mrs Green was only identified as a surviving war veteran in 2008, when a researcher of gerontology found her service record, listed under her maiden name, Patterson, at the National Archives. Though she never saw the front line, her service in the WRAF qualifies her for veteran status. She is now one of just two surviving Britons from the conflict. The other, Claude Stanley Choules, served in the Royal Navy and now lives in Australia. His own 110th birthday is on 3 March.
The WRAF in which Mrs Green served was founded only months before she joined up. Its original intent was to provide female mechanics in order to free up men for service. But the organisation saw huge enrolment, with women volunteering for positions as drivers and mechanics and filling other wartime needs.
"Because the war was a manpower-intensive beast and lots of the young men ended up in France or Egypt fighting the dastardly Hun, as they were called at the time, there was a shortage of manpower, so the powers that be turned to woman power," said Sebastian Cox, head of the air historical branch of the RAF. "Women working was a much less common thing in 1918; they were only a very small percentage of the working population. But once you had conscription from 1916, unless the men were in a reserved occupation, such as down the mines or building aircraft or in the steel works, they were liable to be conscripted. So women took over the other jobs. The RAF needed women for tasks that would normally have been done by men, including waitressing in the officers' mess: before the war that would have been a bloke."
The demographic difficulties were not, for Mrs Green at least, without their upside: "I met dozens of pilots and would go on dates," she said in an interview in 2008. "I had the opportunity to go up in one of the planes but I was scared of flying. I would work every hour God sent. But I had dozens of friends on the base and we had a great deal of fun in our spare time. In many ways, I had the time of my life.'
History certainly records RAF Marham as a busy place to have served, as the battle in the skies grew in significance as the war progressed. FE2bs, RE7s, BE2s – wooden aircraft with engines less powerful than those on most modern motorbikes – set off for bombing raids throughout the day. Today it is the base for four squadrons of Tornadoes, ground-attack aircraft that have served in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The pilots of these supersonic jets have rather different concerns than their First World War counterparts.
"These First World War airplanes only had engines of 70 to 150 horsepower," Mr Cox said. "They were pretty flimsy affairs. They were subject to the vagaries of the weather much more than modern aircraft. You wouldn't take off if the wind was too strong, for example."
Other than Mrs Green and Mr Choules, only one veteran of that great conflict is still alive: an American ambulance driver named Frank Buckles, who turned 110 earlier this month. When inevitably he passes on, he will be eligible for burial in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC. There, each year, on Remembrance Sunday are read the lines of the English poet Laurence Binyon: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."
In the meantime, it is nice to remember the few like Mrs Green who have grown old, not with poppies and sombre ceremonies, but a slice of birthday cake.
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