Obituary: Harry Patch

Final witness to horror of the trenches

By Aleisha Scott
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:49

Harry Patch, the last British soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War, was staunchly anti-war.

Mr Patch was a machine-gunner in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and fought during the Battle of Passchendaele, in Ypres, which claimed the lives of more than 70,000 soldiers.

He served in the trenches as a private from June to September 1917.

Born on 17 June 1898, Mr Patch grew up in Coombe Down, near Bath, and left school at the age of 15 to train as a plumber.

He was 16 when war broke out and reached 18 as conscription was being introduced and after six months training he was sent to the frontline.

He was the number two in the Lewis gun team and his role was to carry and assemble the spare parts for the machine gun and ensure it worked.

The five gunners made a pact not to kill an enemy soldier if they could help it but they would instead aim for the legs.

On 22 September 1917 a shell attack exploded above Mr Patch's head killing three of his comrades.

Mr Patch was hit by shrapnel in the lower abdomen but survived.

During his recovery in Britain, he met his first wife, Ada, in 1918.

They were married for almost 60 years and had two sons, Dennis and Roy, both of whom Harry has outlived.

Too old to fight in the Second World War Mr Patch became a maintenance manager at a US army camp in Somerset and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in Bath.

After the war he went back to plumbing and retired in 1963.

Following Ada's death in 1976, at 81 Mr Patch married his second wife, Jean, who died five years ago.

His third partner Doris, who lived in the same retirement home, died last year.

It was only on his 100th birthday that Mr Patch first came to the spotlight as one of the last veterans of the First World War, when for the first time reporters and television crews visited his care home in Wells, Somerset.

His autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, written with Richard van Emden, was published in 2007.

As well as launching poppy appeals, he became an agony uncle columnist for lads magazine FHM, had his portrait painted by artist and former England wicket keeper, Jack Russell, and had a special edition cider named after him.

In 1999 Mr Patch received the Legion D'Honneur medal awarded by the French government to 350 surviving First World War veterans who fought on the Western Front, dedicating it to his three fallen comrades.

At the age of 105 Mr Patch re-visited the Ypres battle field and in 2004 he returned for a BBC series to meet a German veteran Charles Kuentz.

He also visited the British and German cemeteries, placing a wreath of poppies on one of the German graves.

In February this year Poet Laureate Andrew Motion was commissioned to write a poem in Mr Patch's honour, entitled "The Five Acts of Harry Patch".

In September 2008 he made his last trip to Langemark for the unveiling of a memorial.

Mr Patch believes "war is organised murder" and said: "It was not worth it, it was not worth one let alone all the millions.

"It's important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line - the Germans suffered the same as we did."

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