Well, I’m sure you all know this already, but the UK’s last living link with the trenches of the First World War, Harry Patch, has passed away at the age of 111.
There’s been, justifiably, a lot of talk about him as a hero. Prince Charles has praised him for remaining ‘loyal to the end’. General Sir Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff has said
He was the last of a generation that in youth was steadfast in its duty in the face of cruel sacrifice and we give thanks for his life – as well as those of his comrades – for upholding the same values and freedom that we continue to cherish and fight for today.
I’m mindful of the fact that the general is, quite correctly, trying to underline the fact that war is not a thing of the past, and that today’s soldiers are suffering the same things (injury and the deaths of friends) that Mr Patch had to endure. That said, I think it’s regrettable that the General has tried to appropriate Harry Patch’s death in this way. As far as I can tell, it’s not what he would have wanted.
Harry Patch was – emphatically – not of the opinion that he and his comrades in the trenches were fighting for ‘freedom’. In fact, he thought that the whole war was a colossal waste of life, fought over precious little, and achieving nothing. On his last visit to the battlefields, two years ago, he made a point of laying a wreath to commemorate his fallen comrades. But he also insisted (in the face, reportedly, of some opposition from the Royal British Legion and local residents) on laying a wreath at the memorial to the German soldiers who died in the same battle. The BBC made a programme with him, following him on a previous return to the same places, and as part of it he met and shook hands with a German veteran, and over lunch they shared reminiscences about their essentially identical experiences.
In fact, the whole programme was remarkable, and intensely moving, and I hope the BBC will rebroadcast it to mark the occasion of his death. In one sequence he described holding the hand of his pal as he died of shrapnel wounds sustained in the same attack that Harry Patch had been injured in, and as he spoke he made grasping gestures with his hand, and spoke in a voice roughened with grief, and had to wipe away a tear. It was clear that the memory was a real and painful as if it had just happened, even though he was remembering it across a distance of many decades. In another sequence he sat in his wheelchair at one of the vast WWI graveyards, looking out over the forest of identical white crosses, and said something like ‘When you see all this, it makes you think that there has to be a better way.’
Harry Patch always was a reluctant hero. He didn’t want to fight (not many people conscripted in the final year or two of the war did), not least because his older brother had already been injured. When he returned from the war, like most other veterans, he didn’t speak about what had happened, even to his family. He always refused to attend regimental reunions, on the basis that the war had been one of the worst experiences of his life, and he wanted to forget it.
He was contemptuous of official memorial ceremonies, describing the Act of Remembrance on 11th November as ‘just show business’. Perhaps, along with many of the ordinary soldiers in the trenches, he despised the military elite who had injured him and killed his friends with their incompetence and arrogance, and wanted no part in their celebration of ‘nobility’ and ‘heroic self-sacrifice’. It’s worth remembering in this context that Passchendaele – the battle in which Harry Patch was injured and witnessed the deaths of his three best friends – was a three-month campaign to secure five miles of strategically worthless land, that it cost a total of 585,000 lives on both sides, and that it was the idea of Field Marshall Haig, who went on to give his name to the Remembrance Day poppy appeal. There were many veterans of Passchendaele and the Somme who felt this was a pretty sick joke.
In the last 11 years of his life, Mr Patch allowed himself to become involved in official commemorations, mainly because as one of the last surviving soldiers, he felt he owed it to the many who had died. But he always saw it as his duty, not just to remember the dead, but to insist that the war had been a terrible thing, and that governments owed it to their citizens to find peaceful solutions to their disagreements, to talk instead of fighting. Given that we live in an age when some sections of the idiot media seem to think we’re still at war with Germany, and treat Remembrance Day like it’s a chance to celebrate ‘what makes Britain great’, it’s worth remembering that Harry Patch, and very, very many of the generation he represented, would have regarded the war as one of the worst periods in their life, and a terrible part of our national history.
As well as being our last link to the trenches of WWI, Harry Patch was also, at the time he died, the oldest man in Europe, and the third oldest in the world. Like everyone who lives to that kind of extraordinary age, he had a full life. It’s sobering to think that, although we think of him predominantly in terms of his part in WWI, almost 82% of his life came afterwards. In that time he met and married his first wife, Ada, and had two sons with her, and buried her after 60 years of marriage. He married his second wife, Jean, in 1980, and buried her 4 years later. He met a final partner, Doris, in 2003, and buried her in 2007. He also lived long enough to see the deaths of both of his sons.
We tend to think of a long life as a good thing, as a blessing, if you like using that kind of language. But to live so long that you know you are the last of your generation; to see all your friends, and all three of the women you have shared your life with, die before you do; to experience not just the joy when your children are born, but also the grief when they die in old age – well, I’m not so sure that’s a happy thing. I think you might call that more of a curse.