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

Suggested Topics
News
people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

PPA Supply Teachers

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prima...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per annum: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prim...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?