Remembrance: The old man and the boy, united by grief

They were born nearly a century apart, so what can the longest-lived man in Europe and a teenager have in common? The answer is in the poppies they wear
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The Independent Online

This is a tale of two boys, born nearly a century apart. A schoolboy from the north of England and the oldest man in the country, who lives in a nursing home on the South Coast. Lewis is 15 years old. Henry has been around for an astonishing 111 years.

One is a hefty lad who loves to play rugby, the other a cricketer who can now only sit in his wheelchair with memories of having seen W G Grace bat. So what can they possibly have in common, the teenager and the super-centenarian? So much more than you would think. Particularly this week. The clue is in the poppy that each wears.

Lewis Thompson, from Bishop Auckland, can be seen on Royal British Legion posters looking wedding-day-awkward in a suit and tie, alongside an eerie figure of a man made entirely from the red flowers. To the rest of us, this poppy man is a symbol of those who have died while serving their country, and whose survivors and dependants benefit every time someone buys one of the 36 million buttonholes now on sale. To Lewis, the figure represents his dad.

Mick Thompson died two years ago while serving overseas. "Two welfare officers came to see us at home," says Lewis in a gruff, Durham accent. "They told us what had happened. After that they forgot about us."

The grief that Lewis feels is still deep and raw. It has been made worse by the refusal of the Ministry of Defence to pay compensation for the death of Sergeant Thompson, a veteran of Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Iraq who was killed on his way to work at a barracks in Cyprus. "We have been abandoned," says Lewis, who is fighting a legal battle alongside his father's widow, Tina, with the help of the Legion. The next skirmish will take place in a London court in December.

Despite the way he has been treated by the MoD, Lewis still intends to do what his father did and join up as soon as possible. He hopes to be an aircraft mechanic in the RAF. That is the first thing he has in common with Henry Allingham, who once did the same job – so long ago that the planes were made of wood, cloth and wire.

Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. The oldest in Europe. Exactly 90 years have passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people, before his helpless eyes.

"Bunny Edwards!" he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot's name. "Beautiful swimmer," says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. "I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin."

Bunny died. So have so many other men and women over the years, from the young friends Henry left behind in the mud of the First World War to those killed in service more recently, like Mick Thompson. "My dad was the best man alive, to me," says Lewis. "I just wish he was here now, there is so much I would like to tell him, and ask him about."

There is anger in the boy's voice, as well as sorrow. "It's not about the money, it's about justice." It's also about the Government breaking the Military Covenant, the duty of care owed to servicemen and women and their families. This newspaper has been campaigning for its repair through better housing, the right equipment and decent compensation for the injured or bereaved. So has the Royal British Legion, which provided Lewis with legal advice as well as clothes and school equipment that would have been paid for by his dad. His parents split up and he lives with his mother now, who is disabled. "The Army hasn't helped us one little bit," he says. "They've done a right half-arsed job."

The longest-lived serviceman in British history hears that story, at the other end of the country, and groans. "Oh, that's bad." He has some advice for the lad, but finds the words hard to get out. His chest wheezes and whistles and makes him fight for every breath. "With all due respect to the Army," he says slowly, "and every man in it..."

No. It's no use. Henry has stopped making sense for a moment. He is not as well as he was last summer when the Navy threw a special party for him on board HMS Victory; or when he appeared at the televised Pride of Britain awards and grabbed the microphone from Carol Vorderman. He loves an audience, and the people in the studio loved the old soldier back as he gave them his best line about living so long because of "cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women".

That's a laugh, because he married Dorothy in 1918 and was with her until she died in 1970. There has never been anyone else. He wants to sit up in his wheelchair now, like he did that night, but his body won't do it. So he stays almost curled up, clutching at the white walking stick between his knees. "I'm not so good," he mumbles wearily into his chest. "These last four months. I can't expect to go on. It's asking too much."

But going on is what Henry Allingham is famous for. In the year leading up to his last birthday he made more than 60 public appearances, encouraged and cared for and sometimes nursed by Dennis Goodwin, an expert on the First World War who has made it his life's work to look after the interests of the remaining veterans.

Tomorrow Henry is due at the Imperial War Museum to meet Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, although he hasn't a clue who Harry Potter is.

On Thursday he is booked to travel to France to lay a wreath. But that seems unlikely, as he sits with his eyes closed at the St Dunstan's home for ex-servicemen in Brighton.

His face is pale, in contrast to his charcoal sweater and black cravat. Those hands on the stick are twisted and veined, the skin as dry, crackly and translucent as onion paper. Is it time to leave him alone, quietly? Not a chance. This is Henry Allingham. "What I would say to that young man is this," he says suddenly, jolting upright again. "Join the RAF!"

Well, he would say that. Henry is the RAF's oldest surviving founder member. He can make other claims on history too. "We saw the soldiers coming home too, marching down the street," he says of a childhood in which his favourite game – after cricket – was to dress up as a wounded infantryman with a bandage on his head. But soldiers from which war? "South Africa." Of course. He lived through the Western Front, lost his campaign medals in the Blitz, saw war evolve from the cavalry charge to Cruise missiles, but before any of that he saw the City Imperial Volunteers come home from the Boer War.

Henry was born in 1896. He lost his father, like Lewis, but was only a baby at the time. When his mother died in 1915 he joined up, and a year later was an aircraft mechanic servicing a seaplane during the Battle of Jutland. Then came the Somme.

"Much later I was on the train in London," Henry remembers, "and a woman got in with a baby. She looked at my uniform and said: 'I see you were overseas, flying. Did you know my husband, Mr Edwards?' I said I did actually. I knew him well.

"All she wanted to know was whether he suffered when he died. I told her the truth. He didn't suffer. He lost consciousness first."

Henry tells that story when asked if he thinks of anybody in particular at all those remembrance events. The remarkable thing is that for eight decades he told no stories and attended no events at all, refusing to talk about the war. Having outlived his wife and his two daughters, and seen the rest of his family move to America, he was living as a recluse in East Sussex when Dennis Goodwin tracked him down six years ago. Since then Henry has become perhaps the best-known veteran of them all. "You made me feel I was being disrespectful to the men I knew by not talking about it," he tells Dennis, who has been patiently repeating my questions into his ear. "It was wrong of me to do that."

When Henry goes into schools he talks to teenagers only a little younger than the ones he saw mown down on the Western Front. Lewis Thompson says he cannot imagine what that was like. He doesn't have to, as long as Henry and the four other remaining survivors of that war are alive to tell him.

Children also ask what it is like to be so old. Henry says he would have preferred to have got out early "at 96 or 97". They ask about death, of course, and he says he's ready. Is there a heaven?

"Everlasting life?" he cackles. "You don't think you go up there do you? Ha! That table there, the wood, stones, rocks, everything is capable of reproducing itself. That is everlasting life. Not this..." With a huge grin Henry attempts to raise his elbows and flap them like angel wings. It's daft and funny and he knows it.

"When I was a kid," he says slowly, gasping again, "my mum took me aside and gave me a big kiss. She said: 'You're a good boy.' I remembered that for the rest of my life." The rest of his words are hardly there at all, but they can be lip read. "I have never let her down."

A sense of duty, deep and strong, is what Lewis and Henry, the teenager and the old soldier, have in common most of all. For both it has been strengthened by grief. This week, in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday, they are both determined that we who know nothing about fighting will pay attention for once, and acknowledge the sacrifices made on our behalf.

When the "Last Post" is played around the country on Sunday it will be heard by young sons and daughters who are still reeling, like Lewis, from their loss. Alongside them will be veterans who may look like they love the pomp and polish, but will really be there because they cannot shake off the vivid memories of Bunny, or Jim, or Grace or whatever the names were of those friends who never grew old.

"Those were my pals," says Henry. "They gave all they had. They can't speak for themselves, so I have to." With his last breath. And when he is gone, as he surely will be soon, will we still remember the Great War in the same way? "I don't think so, no," says Aircraft Mechanic Second Class Allingham, almost ready to stand at ease, at last. "But I have done my best."