I just looked up Harry Patch, the last remaining WW1 veteran, who died a few years back. He didn’t speak about the war til he turned 100. Then he described it as “legalised mass murder”. I agree. We no longer have anyone left who lived through WW1.
Britain’s last fighting Tommy, he broke his decades-long silence on the first world war to describe it as
‘legalised mass murder’
In 1917, Harry Patch, who has died aged 111, could have instantly joined the half a million German and Commonwealth soldiers ripped apart in the mud of the battle of Passchendaele. When the First World War was over and he was back in the West Country, running a plumbing business, he never mentioned those months. They were unspeakable.
Only when he reached 100 could he look back. His book The Last Fighting Tommy (2007, written with Richard van Emden) found him, at 109, not only the last British soldier to have seen combat on the western front but the oldest first-time author. His longevity had prompted a remarkable perspective on working England across the 20th century, from a man who, in his youth, had known people born in the early 19th century.
Coughs and colds were “treated with honey and vinegar, which tasted horrible, as well as goose grease which was smeared on your chest”. At a local school, a visiting antiquarian, the Rev Alfred Richardson, helped him to relish archaeology with Roman remains as “hands-on history”. Patch’s childhood enthusiasm for John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet (1898), set in Dorset, came alive when an ancient quarry shifted and disturbed a neighbouring house. His father found a tunnel entrance by their well, and they went 15 metres (50ft) below, beside a spring. “I was fascinated. I could see … a great saw, teeth an inch long, two stones with a cut between, used to sharpen the saw, and the files stuck in a crevice. It appeared that the workmen had left a shift, never to return.”
This was more vivid than his recollection of the Titanic’s sinking in April 1912. Eight months later he began a five-year building apprenticeship. Meanwhile his mother was shocked when his brother William joined the army: in peacetime only “scruffs and villains” did so.
With war, Patch waited for October 1916 call-up and, by June 1917, was a lance corporal in France with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Two weeks after the third battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, had begun on 31 July 1917, Patch duly went over the top. “Others were just blown to pieces,” he would write in the 21st century, “it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only 19 years old. I felt sick.” Impassioned yet cool, he saw weeks of horror; a dying comrade called, “shoot me” but immediately died with the word, “mother”.
Haunted by all the killing Patch, a crack shot saw an exhausted German soldier stumbling up towards the machine gunners, look at this fool he exclaimed and fired mercifully at a German’s shoulder, but the man stumbled on towards the machine gunners, bayonet ready; an easy kill, but still Patch “shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down. He called out something in German, I don’t suppose it was complimentary” but Patch knew he would be able to go home to his family after the war.
Patch’s gun team agreed to only aim below the waist and shoot in the legs, no one wanted to kill soldiers who were only obeying a criminal government like they were.
Patch spoke of the fact that where the governments were determined for war, the soldiers negotiated their own peace and it broke out all along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides – as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units – independently ventured into “no man’s land “, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another, this was stomped on by the higher ups as the war had to continue.
Then, on 22 September, Patch was badly wounded in the chest. Recuperating back in the West Country, he combined recovery with plumbing studies and met his future first wife, Ada. Chest pains precluded a return to France, but he was not demobilised for another year, not until after Armistice Day. Indeed, after 11 November 1918 he was on a firing range with other Tommies when a jobs- worth officer so riled them that there was a stand-off between his revolver and their rifles: “Had he not backed down, he would have been shot, there’s no doubt about it.” A brigadier, alert to the officer’s attitude, vindicated them, but for a moment it had looked a close call.
Patch had always felt, he wrote in The Last Fighting Tommy, that “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder”.
Disillusioned by war, but buoyed by marriage, Patch decided against police service in favour of plumbing’s independence. Despite rising unemployment, his own firm in Bath prospered. A plan to join his son in Chicago was foiled by the outbreak of the Second World War. As a volunteer fireman he was on duty during the Luftwaffe’s 1942 attacks on Bath, and his account of civilian life and preparations for D-day in June 1944 from his vantage point as maintenance manager at a US army camp is as engrossing as his tales of trench life.
At the start of the 1950s his brother George retired to a house near Moonfleet’s Dorset setting – the village of Fleet. Years of weekend foraging culminated for the brothers in the uncovering of a tunnel crucial to the novel.
In 1963 Patch retired; 15 years later Ada died. Throughout those times, his marriage to Jean two years later, his second widowerhood in 1984, and the deaths of Dennis and Roy, his two sons by Ada, Patch never spoke of the First World War. Only at 100, with another companion, Doris, who died in 2007, did he broach the subject, and finally he returned to Ypres at the age of 105. “The idea was that I would lay a wreath to the memory of my dead friends, but I couldn’t. I looked from the [coach] window and the memories flooded back and I wept, and the wreath was laid on my behalf.”
Other returns included for the BBC’s The Last Tommy (2005), when he met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. Patch told the then prime minister, Tony Blair, that nobody during the First World War should have been shot for cowardice. “War is organised murder,” he insisted, “and nothing else.” He said that, for him, 11 November was “just showbusiness”. Instead, “the day I lost my pals”, 22 September 1917, was his true remembrance day. Trench dogs had fought over biscuits snaffled from dead men’s tunics, and Patch had thought, “what are we doing that’s really any different? Two civilised nations, British and German, fighting for our lives.”
As he reached 110, Patch felt honoured to have a poem written about him by the then poet laureate, Andrew Motion, who had visited him for a filmed interview. The poet, whose first work had been about the Great war, felt so transported across time that he became oblivious to the cameras’ presence and recalled that Patch’s hands felt like twigs and his voice “was very low, almost worn out … there were lengthy pauses … gradually I realised they were to let him collect himself”.
Motion’s poem, The Five Acts of Harry Patch, depends, however, upon a knowledge of the veteran’s life; without that, many of the references do not have the dramatic effect of Patch’s own account. It opens, though, with an evocation of an Edwardian summer and, inevitably, closes in the centenarian’s nursing home, with his terror, memory flooded with sniper fire, when staff open the linen cupboard opposite his room: “… all it takes / is someone switching on the light – there is that flash, / or was until you said, and the staff blacked the window.”
Brood, however, he did not: “If they’ve written the obituary, all I can say is that I hope to live long enough that they will have to update it, and more than once!”
• Henry John Patch, born 17 June 1898; died 25 July 2011