The last of the noblest generation

His life ended on a fine summer’s morning in his native Somerset, many miles
and 92 years from the Passchendaele mud where so many of his comrades fell,
and where he, but for the aim of a German artillery officer, so nearly
joined them. For decades he kept the sights and sounds of that butcher’s
yard to himself. But then, beginning at the age of 100, he began to talk of
them. In so doing, he became the very voice of history: the last Tommy,
still fighting. But now, his campaign is over.

As the news of Harry’s death filtered out from his residential home in Wells,
the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, paid tribute, not only to Harry, but to
all the men who fought beside him. “The noblest of all generations has
left us,” he said. “But they will never be forgotten. We say today
with still greater force, ‘We will remember them’.”

We must, for with this death, and that of Henry Allingham earlier this month,
the Britons who thought they were fighting the war to end all wars have now
gone. There will, at the Cenotaph this autumn, be empty places.

And not just for the two First World War veterans who had become so familiar
to us. Harry Patch was not the only British soldier to die yesterday. Fifty
years before Harry was born there were British soldiers fighting in
Afghanistan. They were there when he was discharged from the army in 1919,
and yesterday, on the day that he died, they were still there. And, as
Harry’s life concluded, came the news that a far younger one who wore the
British army uniform died on the same day. Not in his bed, surrounded by
friends and those who cared for him, but on a dusty road in a country that
has defied, for generations, all efforts to subdue it in the name of
civilisation and politically justified armed force.

Harry Patch had words for an occasion like this ? indeed, for all such
conflicts. They were spoken with a soreness that lasted all his adult life. “War,”
he said, “is organised murder, and nothing else.”

The experience which shaped that opinion was, as it was for a generation later
in 1939-45, forced upon him. Born in the Somerset village of Coombe Down in
1898, he had the kind of rural childhood of which sentimental costume dramas
are made ? a lively, scuff-kneed sort of boy, forever scrumping fruit,
mucking about on the local river, and bird-nesting. He left school at 14 for
an apprenticeship with a plumber, and would, no doubt, have lived a life of
peaceful anonymity had the squabbling leaders of Europe been able to resolve
their differences. They couldn’t. Germany invaded Belgium, Britain
responded, and, in a wave of patriotism, a whole generation of young men
volunteered for uniformed adventure.

Harry was not among them; too young at first, and then, courtesy of his
soldier brother’s tales from the front, too wary. Instead, at the age of 17,
he was conscripted. “I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a
case of having to,” he said. He found himself translated into No 29295,
Private Henry John Patch of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. With a
talent for marksmanship, he was drafted into a machine-gun crew, and, by his
19th birthday, was in a waterlogged trench in what was to be known by the
dread name of Passchendaele.

“Anyone who tells you he wasn’t scared, he’s a damned liar,” he
would later say. “We lived by the hour … You saw the sun rise;
hopefully, you’d see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped you’d see it rise.”

Many didn’t. One was a young Cornishman whom Patch and comrades found in
no-man’s land, disembowelled by shrapnel, but still, just, alive. “Shoot
me,” he said, and then, before Harry could react, he died with the
words “Mother!” on his lips. It was but one of the spectres from
the trenches that Harry carried with him until he died.

He was, far too soon, a teenaged veteran in this open-air human abbatoir, a
little expert in what happens to the bodies of young men when they are
ripped open by hot metal and left to rot in a shell hole. And then, in late
September 1917, came the German shell with his name on it. It burst among
his mates with such force that the remains of three of them were never found
again. Harry, some yards away, was seriously wounded, his stomach pierced by
a jagged lump of shrapnel.

He was taken to a casualty station, where he lay, untreated in roiling pain,
for 36 hours. Finally, a doctor came, and, with no anaesthetic, cut out the
metal while four men held him down. It was, although he would not be
demobbed for another year or more, the end of Harry’s war. He returned home,
to plumbing, marriage, two sons, duty with the fire service in another war,
and an old age that saw him survive both sons and his wives.

He had, all this time, kept those memories of war tight within him, telling no
one. But then, as he passed his 100th birthday, a researcher called Richard
van Emden asked if he would talk of war. Finally, he agreed, speaking in
that slow but emphatic Somerset accent, of the waste of conflict.

“At the end, the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell
couldn’t they do that at the start without losing millions of men?” he
said.

He wrote, with Van Emden’s help, his life story, and became, in scores of
remembrance interviews, a witness for those comrades who had been killed so
many years before. He gave the money from the book for a lifeboat and a
memorial to those men of the Duke of Cornwall’s who did not return from the
front. He will be buried with his family in Somerset, and his life, and
those of all the veterans of the First World War, will be honoured at a
memorial service at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Queen, at a date to
be announced.

Not much more than a month ago, I went to see him. He sat at a table in the
morning room of Fletcher House, his back as straight as a rifleman’s ramrod,
his head held with the alertness of a man 30 years his junior. The
conversation was largely one-way. His mind was sharp, and his sight good,
but his voice was a soft, ethereal thing, like a whisper from history. I
ended the chat before he did, afraid to be more of a nuisance than I had
already been.

His handshake as I left was still strong, the grip not so much of a soldier
but of a plumber.

Those hands, that spirit, has now let go. But I hope that is not the end of
him. His voice and body may have died, but his words on war should live on,
resonating strongly, nearly a century after those Flanders cannon were
finally silenced. It would be the best legacy for Harry and his generation.

An eventful lifetime: Three centuries, Six Monarchs, Two World Wars

In 1898, the year Harry Patch was born, Queen Victoria ruled an empire that
spanned the globe, yet millions of other British women had yet to get the
vote. Patch was 30 and George V was on the throne when women were granted
full voting rights in 1928.

Pepsi-Cola was created that year, along with Kellogg’s cornflakes, and beer
cost less than one penny a pint.

Among those born in the same year as Harry were the composer George
Gershwin (who died in 1937) and the writer CS Lewis (who died in 1963). The
author of Alice In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, died the year he was born,
together with the former prime minister William Gladstone.

Patch lived to see 21 prime ministers, including Herbert Asquith and David
Lloyd George; six monarchs; and, tragically, two world wars.

He was a boy of eight when the world’s first feature film was released, The
Story of the Kelly Gang.

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