The last survivors

On 4 August 1914, the Great War began. 900,000 Britons perished. Ninety years on, just four veterans were able to honour the fallen

Ninety years ago, an 18-year-old apprentice mechanic called Henry Allingham rushed to a crowded London recruiting office to sign up to fight against Germany.

He was one of nine million men and women from Britain and its dominions who would head for the battlefields of the First World War. By its end, more than 8.5 million soldiers of all nations lay dead; some 900,000 of them from Britain and the Empire. A quarter of the male British population went to fight; close to three million of them were either killed or wounded.

At 11am yesterday - nine decades since the summer's day of 4 August 1914 that marked Britain's entry into the Great War - Mr Allingham sat beside three of his former comrades in front of the Cenotaph in Whitehall to honour those they had left behind.

It was probably the last time that Britain's soldiers of the Great War would see such a once-a-decade event - one in which the crowd of around 1,000 people broke into spontaneous applause and some openly wept.

For Mr Allingham, Britain's oldest veteran at 108, it was a day both to remember and to forget. He said: "When it started I didn't know what to expect. I thought we'd win, I thought we wouldn't have to fight again like that for 100 years.

"I will never forget my comrades. You cannot think about the morbid things that took place. If you did, you could not go on. But on days like this I pray for them."

The four were the only ones among the 23 surviving veterans of the Great War who were still able to come to the Cenotaph. Ultimately, they explained, they were soldiers who had fought for their families and for each other, only to pay a price they could never forget.

Fred Lloyd, 106, who had joined up to be with his two brothers, Bill and Tom, who were both killed, said: "War is not something nice to remember. There is nothing wonderful about it. I wanted to help Bill and Tom. But I couldn't in the end."

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