Oldest comrade ready again for one last push

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The Independent Online

A jolly, optimistic old man, Mr Allingham finds it very painful to remember the conflict, but as Remembrance Sunday approaches he is prepared to recall the awful reality of the hostilities that claimed millions of lives, lest we forget those who fought and died beside him.

"They were men who gave all they had to give," he says. "We didn't want war and neither did ordinary Germans but it's like everything else ... " He trails off as if at a loss to explain the impasse.

Three years ago there were 60 British veterans who could, like Mr Allingham, talk from searing personal experience of the horrors of 1914-18. Now there are fewer than 20.

Mr Allingham is the only one who can speak as an airman, soldier and sailor, for he served in all three of the armed forces, surviving the battles of Jutland and Passchendaele.

He remembers the fear of night-sailing across seas spiked with landmines. "In the day you could spot them, but not in the dark. One hit and everyone died," he says.

But it is the men of the trenches that he still feels most for. He witnessed their nightmare as he transported weapons to the front.

"They couldn't dig down - six inches and they hit water," he says. "So they built sandbags up eight feet high. Oh, the hardship - standing knee-deep in rat-infested water for two weeks at a time. Everyone was infested with lice."

Mr Allingham got his own taste of what the men in the trenches were going through one night when he fell into a hole filled with corpses and body parts rotting in verminous water. He recoils at the memory of struggling to scramble out.

He also remembers the suffering of the shell-shocked. "They used to hide under their beds and shake," he says. "It wasn't well understood. After the war, I was going to work one day when a car backfired and a man dropped flat on the ground. Some people were sniggering and I wanted to throttle them. I knew what he was feeling, though I never suffered so bad."

Mr Allingham volunteered at 19 and would have gone earlier if his mother had let him. "I was her only child and I thought too much of her to run away and enlist. Then she died at 42 and I joined up."

Virtually blind and hard of hearing, he says there was little interest in his experience until he was 105, but since then he has been honoured in the UK and France. His two daughters emigrated to the US decades ago and the whole family is there now. They have often asked their father to join them, but he says, "I love England." He has met most of the Royal Family.

After saying the Lord's Prayer at the Cenotaph, admiring letters reached him with only his name and "Eastbourne" on the envelope. Now a courier has brought his new 10-year passport: he is offto France for a Remembrance service.

Nowadays historians scramble to interview Mr Allingham and the remaining servicemen from the Great War before it is too late. The old soldier is also aware of the ticking clock: "I want to stay independent as long as I can in my own pad. But I know I can't go on much longer."

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