The coffin draped with the Union Flag, borne into Wells Cathedral by six soldiers and followed by a relative bearing medals, was all too reminiscent of the recent funerals of those who have perished in Afghanistan. But the presence of two German infantrymen among pallbearers at the final send-off for Harry Patch, the last survivor of the First World War trenches, lent a different tone to events – that of eventual peace and reconciliation.
The retired plumber had always shied away from suggestions of a state or military funeral, calling for a simple burial. But the modest old soldier's longevity made him a national icon and yesterday thousands of people lined the streets of the Somerset town, despite the rain. A guard of honour from the Royal British Legion lowered standards as the cortege passed.
As the last man to "go over the top" was buried, the country remembered not just 111-year-old Mr Patch but an entire generation who witnessed the obscene horror of the Great War. During a moving service, the three close friends who died beside him when he was injured on 22 September 1917 were also remembered, along with all those that did not make it home.
Mr Patch served as a conscripted Private from June to September in 1917 and fought in what he referred to as the "disastrous" Battle of Passchendaele, which lasted four months and left more than 800,000 allied and German troops dead or wounded.
And there was no separation of sides yesterday as German, French, Belgian and British soldiers from the 1st Battalion, The Rifles – the successor to The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry in which Mr Patch served – bore him into Wells Cathedral to a packed service attended by The Duchess of Cornwall, the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt, ministers and almost 1,400 people who had queued for tickets to the service.
It was a fitting tribute to an ordinary man, who when finally pressed to talk about his wartime experiences after an 80-year silence, preached a message of the waste and futility of war.
Yesterday, Mr Patch was described as a man of peace at the front of an order of service that included the anti-war song "Where Have All The Flowers Gone".
The Dean of Wells, John Clarke, spoke of the "end of an era as the last voice with direct experience of combat in the trenches has fallen silent". "Harry believed that the world could be repaired, his hope remains a poignant and urgent message for our time as British servicemen once again face death and injury on foreign fields," he added.
Mr Patch's great-nephew David Tucker, 65, who carried his medals and decorations, said: "One of Harry's greatest moments was when he met the sole surviving German soldier – they actually met on the battlefield and shook hands. It was very important that after all those years we could finally close the wounds of that world war. After all the pain Harry went through, he found a way of expressing it for the millions who didn't come back."
Dr Eckland Wilhelm Lubkemeier, the German chargé d'affaires, read a passage from Corinthians, while Marie-France Andre, from the Belgian embassy, read an extract from Mr Patch's book The Last Fighting Tommy, which described a moment that had haunted him.
"We came across this lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him he looked at us and said: 'shoot me'. He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was 'Mother'... I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life, seared into my mind."
His friend Jim Ross said: "He spent 80 years imprisoning the horrors of the trenches. Harry let the demons out and they did their work, emerging in his dreams to torture and terrify him. Harry let it out so we could hear his message of peace and reconciliation. Harry was the extraordinary man, the plumber from Coombe Down who showed us true heroism. Now at long, long last, Harry can rest in peace."
As Mr Patch's coffin was carried out of the cathedral on its way to a private burial at Monkton Coombe Church, in his home town near Bath, there was another moment reminiscent of the funerals of today's young soldiers dying in Afghanistan as a bugler sounded the Last Post. followed by a minute's silence and Reveille. A close friend, Nick Fear, recited The Ode of Remembrance: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old."
It was a fitting tribute to a man who had done his best in his last years to preach a message of peace in the hope that a new generation of young people would get a chance to grow old.Reuse content