Harry Patch: Last surviving veteran of the First World War who remained haunted by its cruelties

Max Arthur
Monday 27 July 2009 00:00

Harry Patch, who has died aged 111, was the last soldier to have fought in the trenches of the Great War.

This laconic, deeply sensitive man who throughout his life retained his gentle West Country accent, was born in 1898. His father, a regular soldier in the Royal Engineers, was wounded in 1914 at the Battle of Mons, which prevented him from returning to the Front. He spoke to his son often of the horrors of trench life, and made the prospect of volunteering seem an unwise one.

Patch was educated Combe Down School where, he later recalled, his headmaster had a long white beard. He was eventually replaced by Mr Collins, a strict disciplinarian. Tough as he was, he gave up two evenings a week for those who wanted extra tuition. Those extra four hours a week taught Patch the value of study, and although he left school at 15, he continued to study afterwards, while becoming an apprentice plumber.

He was called up in October 1916, and joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI). After six months' training, he was assigned to a Lewis machine-gun team. Patch arrived in France in 1917 and on his 19th birthday was in the trenches at Passchendaele. Two weeks later, the DCLI moved to Pilckem Ridge.

Patch later gave a vivid description of his first attack: "I can see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces as we went over the top. We crawled because if you stood up, you'd be killed. All over the battlefield the wounded were lying there, English and German, all crying for help, but we weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed by and left them. You couldn't stop to help them. I came across a Cornishman who was ripped from his shoulder to his waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him. As I got to him he said, 'Shoot me.' Before I could draw my revolver he gasped one word, 'Mother'." That one word was to run through Patch's brain for the rest of his life. However, he was to learn later that the boy's mother was already dead, so he felt he was going to join her.

The DCLI got as far as the second line, where the Germans came running at Patch's machine gun, one of whom had his bayonet aimed at Patch's chest. Patch fired at the German's shoulder, but he continued – Patch did not want to kill him, so with his revolver he shot him in the ankle and brought him down. Throughout his time in action, Patch never fired his gun to kill the enemy, solely to wound.

After this battle, Patch was back in the trenches, which he described as "lousy, dirty and unsanitary". He recalled rats as big as cats which would gnaw through their equipment, and lice were a permanent nuisance. In the four months he was in France, he never had a bath or any clean clothes. Drink was either weak tea or water drunk from an old petrol can.

He had developed a great understanding with his gun team, but as they were coming out of the line on 22 September, a whiz-bang landed among them, and Patch was injured in the groin by shrapnel, and three of his team were killed. He was to recall: "We were a little team together, and those men who were carrying the ammunition were blown to pieces. I reacted very badly. It was like losing a part of my life. It upset me more than anything. We had only been together four months, but with hell going on around us, it seemed like a lifetime."

He was taken to a dressing station where the surgeon told him he could take out a two-inch piece of shrapnel, but unfortunately they had run out of anaesthetic. He agreed to this, and four men grabbed him by his arms and legs while the surgeon removed the shrapnel. The surgeon offered the offending object to Patch, who told him none too politely what he could do with it.

Patch returned to England in December, and because of his wound never returned to France. The 22 September remained a day of private grief for Patch throughout his life. It was a day he kept private for his own thoughts.

During his convalescence he met his future wife, Ada Billington, and they married shortly before the Armistice in 1918. After the war, he was employed by the firm Longs, and worked on the prestigious Wills Tower project in Bristol. During this time he was also studying, and took his exams to become a sanitary engineer and Member of the Royal Sanitary Institute. He continued to work for Longs until the outbreak of the Second World War. He worked on one of the camps occupied by the Americans prior to D-Day, and recalled going in on that day and seeing the camp deserted with ranges still burning, and urns of coffee still hot.

He retired at 65 and tended his garden, but a whole new world opened up for him when he was interviewed in 1998 for the BBC documentary Veterans. From then on, he appeared in a number of documentaries.

On Remembrance Day he was usually at the Cenotaph, but in 2004 he was taken to Passchendaele to meet Charles Kuentz, a 107-year-old veteran. He recalled, "It was very emotional. We had both been on the same battlefield at Pilckem Ridge. He was a nice man, and we communicated, even though we had no common language. Then we both sat in silence, staring out at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of our fallen comrades. We had both fought because we were told to. All of those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now, what is the sense of that? Neither Charles nor I ever want any other young man ever to go through that again."

Patch was interviewed in 2005 for my book, Last Post: The Final Words from our First World War Soldiers. At the time of writing there were 21 left. In 2007 Patch collaborated with Richard van Emden on the book The Last Fighting Tommy making him, at 109, the oldest recorded first-time author.

In September last year, Patch opened a memorial on the banks of the river Steenbeek where the DCLI had crossed in 1917. On 11 November 2008, on a cold day at the Cenotaph, Patch, along with Henry Allingham and Bill Stone, well-wrapped up and in wheelchairs, the last three veterans of the Great War, laid a commemorative wreath. It was to be the last occasion that a veteran of the Great War would be present. This year it will fall to veterans of the Second World War. (The day before this event, much to Patch's delight, the horse named after him, Patch, won the 1.30 at Doncaster.)

Patch took considerable delight in visiting schools and colleges to talk of his experiences and to remind the children of the sacrifices of his generation that enabled them to be free of oppression. He hated war but also recognised the bond of friendship that those who has endured hell would always have.

In 2008, he was made an officer of the French Legion d'honneur. Also in 2008, the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was commissioned to write a poem, "Five Acts of Harry Patch", which was read at the Bishop's Palace in Wells, Somerset, where Patch lived for the later years of his life at Fletcher Nursing Home. His first wife died in 1976, and after the death of his second wife, Jean, in 1984, he had the good fortune to fall in love with one of the residents, Doris, who died in 2007. He used the money he made from The Last Fighting Tommy to fund a lifeboat, which was named Harry and Doris.

With the death of Henry Allingham a week ago, and now Harry Patch, we have come to the end of a remarkable generation of men – all Victorians, who went to war for their King and Country, and we shall not see their like again.

Henry John Patch, veteran of the First World War: born Combe Down, Somerset 17 June 1898; married firstly 1918 (two sons deceased), secondly 1980 (wife deceased); died Wells, Somerset 25 July 2009.

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