Happy birthday, Harry Patch: Last veteran of the trenches turns 111

As the First World War shifts from memory into history, David Randall meets the former Private Patch, still bearing witness to the hell of Passchendaele

On the night of 22 September 1917, near Langemarck in Belgium, a German gun crew fired a shell in the general direction of the British lines. It hit three men serving with a Lewis gun team. None of their remains were ever found. Had it landed a few yards away, it would have removed, just as comprehensively, the body and life of No 29295, Private Henry John Patch, aged 19, of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. What – if anything – was left of him would have been buried in a Flanders field; and, in due course, into the limestone of the war memorial in Combe Down, Somerset, his name would have been chiselled, above that of his boyhood friend Charlie Wherrett, and beside that of his cousin, Fred. And that would have been that.

But Harry, although badly wounded, survived – to return home, fall in love, marry, have two sons, build a plumber's business, help create Bristol University's Wills Memorial Building, serve on the home front of a second war, raise pigs, chickens and cider apples, know family heart-ache, bury first one wife then another, and finally, to outlive every one of the nine million men who fought in the trenches of the First World War. He did not waste the opportunity such accidental celebrity brought. War may have spared him, but, in interview after interview, he did not spare war. Speaking in his Somerset burr, slowed by age to a thoughtful grandeur, he became the living witness for every Tommy who cursed the politicians for sending them to war; a spokesman for a betrayed generation. On Wednesday, his eyesight still good and mind clear, he will be 111. It has been, thanks to the capricious trajectory of that German shell 92 years ago, quite a life.

My search for Harry Patch ended when I found him sitting, alert and contented, by the window of a residential home (not, you note, a nursing home) in Somerset, one week from his birthday. But it began, 20 miles away, in the village of Combe Down, outside Bath, where he was born. His father was a master stonemason prosperous enough to afford three servants, and his mother a former cook. It was an Edwardian country childhood: skating on a frozen meadow in winter, bird-nesting, scrumping fruit, singing in the church choir, learning to swim in Midford Brook, exploring the tunnels of newly-closed stone mines, and attending a village school where the teacher's idea of nature study was to have the 50-strong class weed his garden. He left, at the age of 14, for a plumbing apprenticeship.

In his gas-lit household where the only source of news was the Bath Chronicle, life beyond the visible hills was a distant rumour. The Suffragettes might have been a troupe of female vaudeville performers for all the Patch family took notice. War, when it came, changed that. It changed everything. In Combe Down, there was no great jingoistic rush to enlist; just a gnawing certainty that one day the call-up would come. Harry's brother returned wounded from Ypres, and told him of the filth of trench warfare. "I didn't want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to," he says; and, in October 1916, the telegram came. Within eight months, Harry had been trained, got his marksmanship badge, and was shipped to France. By his 19th birthday, he was in the line, sharing a water-logged trench with rats which would nip at your bootlaces if you stood still for long. And he was scared. "Anyone who tells you he wasn't scared, he's a damned liar." Overhead were shells, whose red-hot shrapnel would rip you open like a big, blunt tin-opener; in front was machine-gun fire and snipers' bullets; and, behind, from Staff HQ, could come, at any dawn, an order to advance that was, for many, a death sentence. "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."

In mid-August, in the homicidal filth of Passchendaele, Harry went over the top for the first time. As he and his team advanced, they passed fallen men, bits of men, and men whose wounds had turned them almost inside out. They came upon a Cornishman lying there, torn open from shoulder to waist. "Shoot me," he said. But before Harry could consider the possibility, the lad died, saying the word "Mother" – not in despair, but in a tone of wonderment and recognition. That memory has haunted Harry for 94 years. His team moved on, and a German defender came at them, bayonet fixed, and determined, it seemed, to skewer them and kick their machine gun into the mud. Harry took his revolver. "I was a crack shot. What should I do? That Cornishman's 'Mother' was ringing in my ears and I thought, 'No, I can't kill him', and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee and brought him down." That was always his policy. He never, so far as he knows, killed a man.

They finally reached a vacated German trench, spent the night listening to the fading cries and screams of the wounded, were relieved, rested – and, early the next month, sent back for more. And it was towards the end of September, as he and his company were returning to reserve one night, that the German artillery fired that shell. "The only thing I saw was a flash," he says. He was blown off his feet, and, for a few minutes, couldn't move. Then he felt a pain, looked down, and saw his tunic torn and blood flowing from his stomach. He put on a field dressing, and passed out. He was found, and taken to a casualty clearing station, where he lay in agony for 36 hours. Finally, a doctor came, and, with four men holding Harry down, removed the shrapnel without anaesthetic. It was two inches long and jagged as unknapped flint.

He was brought back to Blighty, that Neverland of sanctuary every soldier dreamed of, to a hospital in Liverpool, and, then, convalesence in Sutton Coldfield, and a lucky encounter. He was running for a bus, and collided with a girl called Ada. He helped her up, apologised, and she evidently forgave him, for in September 1919 they began a marriage that was to last more than 50 years. To support his new family (sons were born in 1920 and 1924), he returned to plumbing, and built his own business. He sold it, and he and Ada decided to emigrate and join her brother Bill in Chicago.

But it was 1939, and another bloody war. So he stayed in Somerset, and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, fighting blazes that German bombers left in their wake. Later, he was an engineer at camps of US soldiers being readied for D-Day, didn't much care for their segregation, and made a point of spending time with the black guys. Better food, and better company, he says. Then it was back to plumbing until retirement in 1963. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind years. Ada died; son Dennis became an alcoholic, selling some of Harry's medals to buy whisky and drinking himself to death at 61; Harry's second wife, Joan, died shortly afterwards, and, in the aftermath of all this, he and second son Roy became estranged and never spoke again. In his late nineties, he entered a residential home.

Harry had still never spoken of his war to anyone. That part of his memory was like a contaminated mineshaft, capped off and sealed away for 81 years. But, unknown to him, a young BBC researcher called Richard van Emden was deep into an ambitious project to interview 250 First World War veterans before they died. He subscribed to The Caring Times, for the list of centenarians it published. Whenever male was mentioned, which was rare, Van Emden would call the home, ask if the man served in the Great War, and was prepared to talk. And, in the summer of 1998, when he saw that a Harry Patch had just celebrated his 100th birthday at Fletcher House, in Wells, Somerset, he telephoned. The answer was "yes", down he went to Wells, and found, like the hundreds he'd spoken to before (Harry was No 214) a man who thought five minutes' chat emptied him of anything interesting. Richard sensed there was more; much more. He persisted, brought along a film crew, and Harry's war came tumbling out – with passion and anger. He spoke of the trenches, the fear,his own wounding, and, especially, of the sheer wanton waste of life. "War is organised murder, and nothing else. 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?"

And so it was, as those who served in the butchers' yard of the Western Front were whittled down to a mere handful, that Harry Patch became, in interviews and documentaries, a witness for all those fallen comrades who never had a chance to grow old. It was as if the very mud of Passchendaele was speaking to us.

Finally, in 2003, he visited the place where he was wounded, the now nondescript Belgian farmland where once men died at the rate of 3,000 a day, his mates among them. He arrived on a coach and was to lay a wreath. "But I couldn't. I looked from the window and the memories flooded back and I wept." He has returned several times; the visits get easier. When he appears, he is feted, applauded, surrounded, and, back home, they write letters, send him things, and read his book, royalties from which fund a lifeboat and a memorial for his mates near Langemarck. France and Belgium have honoured him, Britain, for some reason, prefers to give gongs to celebrity chefs instead.

The search for Harry Patch ends in a residential home whose location has been found by sufficient numbers of uninvited admirers, autograph hunters, and rubber-neckers, that staff are very protective. His life is necessarily very simple. His first-floor room is full of pictures and mementos, with a Union flag in the window, and, on top of his wardrobe, three old suitcases, ready, perhaps for that final trip to Belgium. Here he reads and dozes each afternoon, and sleeps each night. But, every morning after breakfast, he eases away from his dining-room table, and sits there, the front of his jacket heavy with medals but his back as upright as the chair. That is how I first saw him, sitting against the light and watching as women young enough to be his great-great-granddaughters cleared the cups and plates away.

You might think, to look at him, he was 30 years younger than he is, but his hearing needs aid, and, these days, his voice is softer than a whisper. Helped by Fletcher House's manager Carol Mohide, I talk to him finally of happy things, of his childhood, of being a country boy, of his native Somerset, and the caravan he once made for his family with his own hands. His words are mouthed, rather than spoken, but his eyes are clear and bright, light up at the warmer memories, and he smiles readily. But he tires easily now, and you soon rise from your seat beside him, anxious not to be an imposition. His solid handshake, when we part, is a prize.

As Richard van Emden says, the last fighting Tommy could have been senile, blind, or bedridden. But he's not. He's Harry Patch. On Wednesday, all Britain should turn to Somerset and salute him.

'The Last Fighting Tommy' by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden, is published by Bloomsbury at £7.95

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