Henry Allingham: Last surviving Navy veteran of the Great War who lived to become the world’s oldest
As an air mechanic with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), in 1916 Allingham witnessed the Battle of Jutland from the decks of HMS Kingfisher in the North Sea and was the last survivor of either side. He also saw at first hand, often under fire, the horrors of Flanders, at one point nearly drowning in a shell-hole full of decaying bodies in Passchendaele.
Henry William Allingham was born in Clapton, east London, in 1896. His father died when Henry was only 14 months old and he went to live with his grandparents until he was seven, when he returned to his mother. On leaving school, Allingham started work as a trainee surgical instrument-maker at St Bartholomew’s Hospital, earning 12s 6d a week, out of which he had to pay his mother 10 shillings, leaving him half a crown for his lunches and fares. Keen to continue his education he attended the Regent Street Polytechnic. He then joined a coach-builders in East Dulwich, where his wage was increased to 29 shillings a week. As he recalled with some pride: “There were gents going to the City for 30 bob.”
Allingham was 18 at the outbreak of the Great War, but he was anxious about leaving his mother on her own to join up. Soon after her death in September 1915, he put his name down with the RAC in Pall Mall where they were asking for volunteers to be dispatch riders. They were slow to call him and, a week later, sighting an aircraft, Allingham decided to join the RNAS at Chingford, Essex.
He volunteered for East Africa, only to be posted to the RNAS station at Great Yarmouth. He spent much of his time supporting anti-submarine patrols from a variety of seaplane carriers. He was mostly on trawlers where he had to sleep in the hold and was pleased when he was allocated a paddle-steamer. Each ship had a deck-mounted derrick from where the seaplane was hoisted on to and out of the water.
Although generally the observer on anti-U-boat patrols, on the morning of 31 May 1916 Allingham was called to board HMS Kingfisher, which carried a Sopwith Schneider seaplane. While at sea, he recorded:
“On Monday night we were waiting around when along came the whole Grand Fleet all in battle line astern, with a big bow wave, going like hell’s bells. It was a wonderful sight. The dreadnoughts came first ? three of them. Then came the cruisers and everything else right down to the littlest boats, and we joined up with them and followed.”
As much of the Battle of Jutland was at night, it was not possible for Allingham’s aircraft to act as a spotter. However, shells fell either side of his ship and one bounced off it. He was completely unaware of the enormity of the battle in which over 6,000 British seamen lost their lives until he returned to hear the church bells ringing to celebrate the victory, albeit a Pyrrhic one.
There was no radio on the plane, nor did the airmen have a parachute, but in the early days aircraft carried a basket of pigeons, one of which could be released with a message attached to its leg should the aircraft ditch. In an open cockpit it could be intensely cold, with temperatures well below freezing, so Allingham would apply Vaseline to his face, wear long-johns beneath his trousers and a long leather coat and helmet.
In his early flights, to defend the aircraft, Allingham carried two Lee Enfield rifles. After the Lewis Gun was first mounted, it was found that, when it fired, it could shoot the plane’s propeller off, but by 1916 the plane was fitted with synchromesh gears which enabled the Lewis Gun to fire through the prop.
By 1917, Allingham had flown in Bristols, Sopwith Pups and Camels, all of which had radio. In September that year, the newly formed No 12 Squadron was sent to France, where Allingham’s job was to service the aircraft and rescue parts from those which had crashed. Back in the air, he would sit behind the pilot and when in action would either drop bombs by hand or fire his Lewis Gun.
In October 1917, 12 Squadron moved to the Ypres Salient in support of the British offensive. They arrived on a dark night outside Dunkirk and were advised not to go forward. Allingham spread his groundsheet and put his boots together to make a pillow. During the night, he went through a terrifying experience. He recalled:
“I got up in the night, took a couple of paces and fell straight into a shell-hole. It was absolutely stinking. There was everything in there, you name it ? no end of dead rats. You know what they fed on in this hole? The bodies of the boys listed as missing, so there I was, in this filthy great, big hole. I decided to take a chance and I moved to the left. If I’d gone to the right, I don’t know what would have happened.
“It was shallow and I managed to get to my feet, and I tried to climb out several times, but no joy. Somehow, though, and I don’t know how, I heaved my belly up on to the side, and I could just pull myself out. I was soaking wet, right up to my armpits, but I had to stay there until daylight.”
Lice were a source of profound irritation to everyone and Allingham remembered having to run the seams of his shirt over a candle before washing it, only to see the lice crawling along the drying line looking for their former homes. While searching for aircraft parts, Allingham came under fire a number of times on the Western Front and underwent the terrifying experience of being caught in a bombardment from the sea, land and air, all at the same time.
He spent plenty of time with the Tommies, who told him many stories, and he used to join in singing with them and found one of the favourites to be “Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty” He had a great respect for the men and throughout his life spoke warmly of them. “They were the men who really suffered.”
A regular churchgoer, he met Tubby Clayton, the founder of Toc H, at Poperinge. Clayton had set up his headquarters there to provide basic comforts for the soldiers going to and from the front. Allingham recalled, “He had a big bowl of lovely roses which he told me had just arrived from England, and seeing them amongst these terrible surroundings was a real tearjerker.”
During this period, Allingham befriended Louis Freeman of the London Philharmonic as well as the Swiss pianist Alfred Cortot and the artist Louis Wain. Allingham’s contribution to their lunch together was a large tin of salmon. When Allingham married, Wain presented him with one of his paintings.
It was not an easy time for Allingham when the RNAS merged with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 1 April 1918 to become the RAF; many resented having to give up their naval uniform and way of life to this new service. At the armistice, everyone around Allingham went mad with celebration, but he took to his bed. In the morning he moved with his squadron to Rheinberg, near Bonn, where he was billeted with a German family. His wife, Dorothy, sent him two oranges, which Henry Allingham was to recall “were as rare as platinum”. In typical fashion, Allingham handed his oranges to the two young boys of the family.
He had met Dorothy in 1917 and the following summer had been offered a commission and given four days’ leave to consider his future. He got home on a destroyer and when he told Dorothy his news she burst into tears. He recalled:
“She wouldn’t have that ? there was a very high rate of casualty. She said, “You’ve got no home (which I didn’t have) and it’s time you thought about settling down.” I turned to her and I said, “Would you marry me?” She was stunned. I never intended to do that ? I didn’t want to get married. And she said, “Oh! Yes” and that was that.”
After the war Allingham joined an aircraft firm and moved to Edinburgh to work for Price’s, an engineering firm where he worked for 12 years, before joining Ford at Dagenham. During the Second World War, he worked on a number of military projects, in particular counter-measures to German magnetic mines. When one of the first was dropped on Harwich, Allingham was called away from his Christmas lunch and did not appear again, much to the consternation of Dorothy and his two girls, until the work had been completed nine days later. At War’s end, Allingham returned to Ford and worked there until he retired.
After Dorothy’s death in 1970, Henry Allingham looked after himself in a flat overlooking the sea at Eastbourne. It was there that he was contacted in the 1990s by Dennis Goodwin, the founder of the World War One Veterans’ Association, who revitalised Allingham’s life. Although by then over 100, Allingham was taken by Goodwin to a number of Buckingham Palace parties and other events where people were always delighted to see him.
In 2003 Allingham was awarded the Légion d’honneur, along with other British veterans who had served in France in the First World War. Each year, pushed in his wheelchair by Goodwin, Allingham attended the Remembrance Day parade in Whitehall. Often his thoughts during that occasion turned to the aircrew:
“I was thinking of the blokes I knew who burned. I saw them come down ? men I knew, whose planes I knew ? crashing into the ground.”
On 30 June 2006, Allingham was taken to the Somme by Goodwin for the 90th anniversary of the battle. He missed the Remembrance Day parade as he was visiting St Omer in France, where he was given the freedom of the town. He also went to Germany to meet Robert Meier, a stripling of 109. They were wheeled side-by-side to lay a wreath on the local war memorial, and then the two men who had been foes in the same sector of Ypres shook hands with great tenderness. They were the two oldest men in their respective countries ? Allingham had seen W.G. Grace at the Oval and Meier had met the Kaiser.
No one who met Henry Allingham could help but be moved by his vitality, dignity and humour, for he had an irrepressible spirit. In his later years he felt that he must speak of the war in order not to forget the sacrifice of so many young men. “There’s a lot I’ve tried hard to forget,” he told me when I interviewed him for Last Post: the final word from our First World War soldiers (2005). “I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. I’ve had a unique sort of life. I’ve scraped the barrel and I’ve had the cream.”
Henry William Allingham, engineer: born London 6 June 1896; married 1918 Dorothy Cater (died 1970; two daughters deceased); died Ovingdean, East Sussex 18 July 2009.
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