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

Author: By Max Arthur

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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