Britain and its armed forces
The last of the noblest generation
Harry Patch died yesterday aged 111. He was the nation's final living link to the horrors of the Western Front. David Randall, the last journalist to meet Private Patch, reports
Sunday 26 July 2009
Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Western Front, and the man who reminded the modern world of its filthy slaughter, died yesterday at the age of 111.
His life ended on a fine summer's morning in his native Somerset, many miles and 92 years from the Passchendaele mud where so many of his comrades fell, and where he, but for the aim of a German artillery officer, so nearly joined them. For decades he kept the sights and sounds of that butcher's yard to himself. But then, beginning at the age of 100, he began to talk of them. In so doing, he became the very voice of history: the last Tommy, still fighting. But now, his campaign is over.
As the news of Harry's death filtered out from his residential home in Wells, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, paid tribute, not only to Harry, but to all the men who fought beside him. "The noblest of all generations has left us," he said. "But they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force, 'We will remember them'."
We must, for with this death, and that of Henry Allingham earlier this month, the Britons who thought they were fighting the war to end all wars have now gone. There will, at the Cenotaph this autumn, be empty places.
And not just for the two First World War veterans who had become so familiar to us. Harry Patch was not the only British soldier to die yesterday. Fifty years before Harry was born there were British soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. They were there when he was discharged from the army in 1919, and yesterday, on the day that he died, they were still there. And, as Harry's life concluded, came the news that a far younger one who wore the British army uniform died on the same day. Not in his bed, surrounded by friends and those who cared for him, but on a dusty road in a country that has defied, for generations, all efforts to subdue it in the name of civilisation and politically justified armed force.
Harry Patch had words for an occasion like this – indeed, for all such conflicts. They were spoken with a soreness that lasted all his adult life. "War," he said, "is organised murder, and nothing else."
The experience which shaped that opinion was, as it was for a generation later in 1939-45, forced upon him. Born in the Somerset village of Coombe Down in 1898, he had the kind of rural childhood of which sentimental costume dramas are made – a lively, scuff-kneed sort of boy, forever scrumping fruit, mucking about on the local river, and bird-nesting. He left school at 14 for an apprenticeship with a plumber, and would, no doubt, have lived a life of peaceful anonymity had the squabbling leaders of Europe been able to resolve their differences. They couldn't. Germany invaded Belgium, Britain responded, and, in a wave of patriotism, a whole generation of young men volunteered for uniformed adventure.
Harry was not among them; too young at first, and then, courtesy of his soldier brother's tales from the front, too wary. Instead, at the age of 17, he was conscripted. "I didn't want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to," he said. He found himself translated into No 29295, Private Henry John Patch of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. With a talent for marksmanship, he was drafted into a machine-gun crew, and, by his 19th birthday, was in a waterlogged trench in what was to be known by the dread name of Passchendaele.
"Anyone who tells you he wasn't scared, he's a damned liar," he would later say. "We lived by the hour ... You saw the sun rise; hopefully, you'd see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped you'd see it rise."
Many didn't. One was a young Cornishman whom Patch and comrades found in no-man's land, disembowelled by shrapnel, but still, just, alive. "Shoot me," he said, and then, before Harry could react, he died with the words "Mother!" on his lips. It was but one of the spectres from the trenches that Harry carried with him until he died.
He was, far too soon, a teenaged veteran in this open-air human abbatoir, a little expert in what happens to the bodies of young men when they are ripped open by hot metal and left to rot in a shell hole. And then, in late September 1917, came the German shell with his name on it. It burst among his mates with such force that the remains of three of them were never found again. Harry, some yards away, was seriously wounded, his stomach pierced by a jagged lump of shrapnel.
He was taken to a casualty station, where he lay, untreated in roiling pain, for 36 hours. Finally, a doctor came, and, with no anaesthetic, cut out the metal while four men held him down. It was, although he would not be demobbed for another year or more, the end of Harry's war. He returned home, to plumbing, marriage, two sons, duty with the fire service in another war, and an old age that saw him survive both sons and his wives.
He had, all this time, kept those memories of war tight within him, telling no one. But then, as he passed his 100th birthday, a researcher called Richard van Emden asked if he would talk of war. Finally, he agreed, speaking in that slow but emphatic Somerset accent, of the waste of conflict.
"At the end, the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn't they do that at the start without losing millions of men?" he said.
He wrote, with Van Emden's help, his life story, and became, in scores of remembrance interviews, a witness for those comrades who had been killed so many years before. He gave the money from the book for a lifeboat and a memorial to those men of the Duke of Cornwall's who did not return from the front. His funeral will be held at Wells Cathedral, and his life, and those of all the veterans of the First World War, will be honoured at a memorial service in Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen, at a date to be announced.
Not much more than a month ago, I went to see him. He sat at a table in the morning room of Fletcher House, his back as straight as a rifleman's ramrod, his head held with the alertness of a man 30 years his junior. The conversation was largely one-way. His mind was sharp, and his sight good, but his voice was a soft, ethereal thing, like a whisper from history. I ended the chat before he did, afraid to be more of a nuisance than I had already been.
His handshake as I left was still strong, the grip not so much of a soldier but of a plumber.
Those hands, that spirit, has now let go. But I hope that is not the end of him. His voice and body may have died, but his words on war should live on, resonating strongly, nearly a century after those Flanders cannon were finally silenced. It would be the best legacy for Harry and his generation.
An Eventful Lifetime: Three centuries, Six monarchs, Two World Wars
In 1898, the year Harry Patch was born, Queen Victoria ruled an empire that spanned the globe, yet millions of other British women had yet to get the vote. Patch was 30 and George V was on the throne when women were granted full voting rights in 1928.
Pepsi-Cola was created that year, along with Kellogg's cornflakes, and beer cost less than one penny a pint.
Among those born in the same year as Harry were the composer George Gershwin (who died in 1937) and the writer CS Lewis (who died in 1963). The author of Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, died the year he was born, together with the former prime minister William Gladstone.
Patch lived to see 21 prime ministers, including Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George; six monarchs; and, tragically, two world wars.
He was a boy of eight when the world's first feature film was released, The Story of the Kelly Gang.
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