The centurions guarding the memory of millions that fell

Four of the handful of surviving combatants from the First World War met at the Cenotaph yesterday to mark the 90th anniversary of the conflict's outbreak. Cahal Milmo tells their remarkable stories
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'I prefer to remember what I loved and lost, my brothers' brothersGardener joined up to help his brothers and lost both

FRED LLOYD

Born: 1898

Military service: Joined Royal Field Artillery at 18 in 1916 but served with Royal Veterinary Corps after suffering meningitis.

Post-war: Returned to his job as a gardener in the East Sussex village of Uckfield. His wife, Alice, lived until she was 92 and he has six great great grandchildren.

By 5am yesterday Fred Lloyd had woken and shaved twice. It was, he said, to ensure that he was properly turned out to pay his respects to his fallen comrades - in particular the two he simply refers to as Bill and Tom.

The 106-year-old former soldier travelled to the Cenotaph in Whitehall from his native village of Uckfield, East Sussex, to remember the two brothers he joined up to fight alongside, only to return without them.

A young gardener on a country estate before he joined up, Mr Lloyd knew the importance of family more than most. The youngest of 16 siblings, he was orphaned at the age of two and brought up by his eldest sister.

It was this close bond which persuaded him to follow his brothers to the battlefields of France to fight a foe he had no desire to destroy.

Yesterday, his voice animated and with a steady stare that belies his age, he said: "I miss Bill so much. Tom was killed first, and that was terrible, but Bill and I were only a year apart in age and we grew up together. We played together and went to school together. Everything we did, we did together."

He added: "War is not something nice to remember. There is nothing wonderful about it. It was a bad time and we were often outnumbered by the Germans. But it was not them I went to fight. I wanted to help Bill and Tom, but I couldn't in the end."

The road to the Western Front was far from straight for the former artilleryman. After first trying to join up at 17 and then being rejected by his local regiment, he eventually joined the Royal Field Artillery in 1916 and carried out his training on giant howitzers used to shell German positions over large distances.

But just as he was ready to go into action, his unit was struck by an outbreak of meningitis. He spent nearly a fortnight in a coma. Of the 32 men who fell victim to the illness, only two returned to active service - one was Fred.

Unable to serve with the guns in France because of his weakened condition, he joined the Royal Veterinary Corps and undertook the dangerous task of transferring horses to the front lines.

Mr Lloyd was never posted near his brothers. Tom, who was 14 years older and a father figure, died from multiple wounds in 1917. Bill, who had been due to marry after the war, was killed less than three months before the armistice.

When he returned to Sussex in 1918, Mr Lloyd married a local woman, Alice Weaver, started a family and, like so many of his comrades, did his best to forget the conflict he describes as "unnecessary".

In the glare of the August sun on Whitehall yesterday, the old soldier admitted he still finds it difficult to discuss what he saw. He said: "The things I remember most were the rats and the lice. Wars still go on. They are no more pleasant than they were then. There's nothing nice about killing, so I prefer to remember what I loved; my brothers."

'We were fired at from all directions continually. It was hell' Aged 103, the stoker who survived the fires of two wars

BILL STONE

Born: 1901, Ledstone, Devon.

Military service: Joined the Royal Navy as a stoker on his 18th birthday. Served in both world wars, including Dunkirk.

Post-war: Lives in Oxfordshire.

As the survivor of two world wars and a member of a family who sent two generations into battle without a casualty, Bill Stone could be forgiven for thinking he has a guardian angel.

The 103-year-old veteran led yesterday's commemoration of the 90th anniversary of the start of the First World War just as he spent all the others, standing at attention, carrying a wreath for his lost comrades.

One of 14 children, Mr Stone and three of his brothers served during the Great War on land and sea and returned uninjured. A generation earlier, four uncles had gone to fight for the British Empire and also came home unscratched.

But as he read John McCrae's 1915 lament, In Flanders Fields yesterday, he said his thoughts were far from his own good fortune. "I saw many of my friends who went to fight in the war and who never came back. It was tragic, and this morning's ceremony was deeply moving for me."

When war broke out on 4 August 1914, Mr Stone was a 14-year-old farmhand. Undaunted by his age, he walked three miles from his Devon hamlet to the nearest recruiting office for the Royal Navy.

The only factor that prevented him joining two of his brothers in the armed forces was his father, who refused to sign his papers. But four years later the youngster joined the Navy as a stoker. At the end of the war he saw the remains of the German fleet, scuttled at Scapa Flow. " We saw the German battleships; some were on the seabed. You could see the funnels and half-masts. I thought, 'That's the bloody place for them'."

Like so many of his surviving comrades, Mr Stone had assumed the Great War had been the war to end wars. He stayed in the Navy and 20 years later he realised it was not.

He was to leave the service in 1940, but served through the Second World War, starting with five trips to the beaches of Dunkirk.

Mr Stone, his chest emblazoned with rows of medals, said: "We were bombed continually, fired at from all directions. It was hell. I said, 'God help us'. Our sister ship about 50 yards away was bombed and she just disappeared with 200 soldiers on board and the crew, all killed."

Like the fellow veterans beside him, the former sailor, who served in eight ships, was modest about his service, saying he was only a "fortunate representative" of those who had died.

Others thought differently. Dennis Goodwin, secretary of the World War One Veteran's Association, said: "We have halls of fame for cricketers or footballers and I don't see why we shouldn't have a hall of fame for our war heroes. If we do, Bill Stone should be the first we put in."

'No one can know what it was like unless they were there'

JOHN OBORNE

Born: 1900, Porthcawl, mid-Glamorgan.

Military service: Joined 52nd Devonshire Light Infantry in 1917.

Post-war: Married and lives in his native south Wales. He has a son.

The difference between John Oborne standing at the Cenotaph yesterday as one of the last survivors of the First World War and being commemorated as one of its fallen was less than an inch of clockwork.

As an 18-year-old infantryman, he was running towards German troops at Passchendaele in 1917 and was struck by a bullet in the chest. The bullet hit the pocket watch given to him by his father before he left for the Western Front; the timepiece was destroyed, but Mr Oborne survived.

Yesterday, the former soldier was all too happy to recognise his fortune in emerging alive from the battlefields of France and Belgium. But, of the four centenarian comrades who formed the focus of the commemoration of the start of the First World War, he was the most reluctant to relive what he had experienced.

Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme before the ceremony, he recalled how he had found himself in a shell-hole during the third battle of Ypres. "You've gone over the top, you're buried in muck and when they dig you out you've got another face looking at you. And that face hasn't got a body, and the rest has been blown away. You might have someone's leg around your neck.

"No one would know what it was actually like unless they were there. Your imagination won't go that far. It's best forgotten. It was awful."

On the day the war broke out, Mr Oborne was a 14-year-old apprentice carpenter. He joined up at the age of 17 and became a foot soldier in a war which claimed more than 750,000 British lives - most of them his fellow infantrymen.

While eager to salute those he left behind, his memories have remained private even to his own flesh and blood. His son, David, 77, said: "He has never talked about it much. If you've seen a shell throw up bodies blown up by a previous shell, you try to block it out. I've tried to get things out of him but I can't."

'I fell into one of the holes. It was full of bodies and blood'

HENRY ALLINGHAM

Born: 1896, in Eastbourne, East Sussex.

Military service: Joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915, serving as a Mechanic 1st Class. Fought at Jutland and Passchendaele.

Post-war: Returned to pre-war job as a car mechanic and married his fiancée, Dorothy. They had two daughters. During the Second World War he was an aircraft mechanic.

The fourth of August 1914 - when Britain declared war on Germany and some 11 million men started the march to Europe's bloodiest war - was spent by Henry Allingham doing what he loved best: trying to ride a motorbike.

Then 18, he travelled to London's Piccadilly to queue at the recruiting office of the Royal Engineers to try to enlist as a despatch rider because he wanted to exchange his Triumph motorbike for the more powerful military machines.

Unfortunately, some 200 others had had a similar idea and got to Piccadilly ahead of him. He was rejected, and Mr Allingham joined a fledgling arm of British military aviation, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Rather than riding a bike, he witnessed the extremes of the First World War on land and sea, from the Battle of Jutland to the third Battle of Ypres in which the British alone suffered 400,000 casualties.

Now 108, Mr Allingham is Britain's oldest surviving war veteran. But yesterday, nine decades had done little to dim his memory of what he saw, or his desire to tell others of the grotesque nature of conflict.

As he sat alongside three of the remaining 23 known survivors of the Great War in front of the Cenotaph, he explained his almost evangelical desire to talk about his military career.

He said: "It is my duty to talk about my experiences and the horror of war. Most who have been to war never want to do it again. There was good comradeship but it was no fun."

The veteran, who still lives in his third-floor flat in Eastbourne and has his meals delivered to him by carers, had his first taste of battle on HMS Kingfisher in 1916 when he was in an airborne spotter force sent to find the German fleet.

He witnessed Jutland, the battle off a Danish peninsula that confined the German navy to port for the war, and remembers the sound of heavy enemy shells passing over his destroyer. He realised the importance of the battle only at a church service after the battle, when the vicar offered a prayer for the "victory of Jutland".

After the war, Mr Allingham married his fiancée, Dorothy, and they had two daughters. Such is his great age that he has outlived all of them. But his most vivid memories are of the Western Front, where he often had to take his chances in the highly dangerous no man's land to help recover recover damaged aircraft. Often, he had to shelter from artillery barrages in vast shell-holes infested with rats and filled with the dismembered remains of many of his comrades.

He said: "Once, during Ypres, I fell into one of the holes. It was dark and I struggled. I thought I would drown but I managed to get a footing. I dragged myself out. It was full of bodies and blood. That is something you don't forget."

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