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last soldier of the First World War
Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier of the First World War
died on Saturday 25 July 2009 in a care home in Wells, Somerset. He was
111 years old.
Harry Patch was born at Combe Down, a small village
near Bath, on 17 June, 1898. He left school at 15 and started to train
as a plumber. His brother was wounded early in the First World World
War at the Battle of Mons which started in August 1914. It was the
first battle between the British and Germans in the war.
Patch joins the army
Harry was not
keen to fight but was conscripted at the age of 18 and went into
training with the 33rd Training Battalion near Warminster in Wiltshire.
landed in France in June 1917 and was sent to Rouen in Normandy. He
became a Lewis machine-gunner with C company of the 7th Battalion, Duke
of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
moved to Belgium to fight in what was to be the last battle of the war
the Battle of Passchendaele (Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres).
By the 17th June (his nineteenth birthday) he was in the trenches
though not yet in action. The Battle of Passchendaele started on July
31 1917 and continued in appalling conditions of rain, mud and violence
until November 6 1917. By that time the British and Canadian forces had
advanced just five miles to the remains of the village of
Passchendaele. The British and Canadian forces suffered 325,000
casualties and the Germans 260,000.
Patch's last battle
Patch was out of the war long before the battle ended. On 22 September
he was returning from the front line in single file with the five-man
Lewis gun team when a German shell burst over their heads. Three of
them were killed. Harry Patch was seriously wounded with a piece of
shrapnel in his groin.
field dressing station had run out of anaesthetic and the next evening
, when he was seen by a doctor, Patch was offered the opportunity to
have the metal removed without anaesthetic. He agreed to this and four
men held him down in excruciating agony for the long minutes it took
the surgeon to remove the shrapnel.
sent home to England to recuperate in a series of hospitals over the
Patch's life as a civilian
he was running past a queue of people outside a cinema in Sutton
Coldfield and knocked over a young woman, Ada Billington. That was how
he met his first wife.
returned to the plumbing trade and passed trade exams. He was soon in
charge of a number of men, but after a number of years he decided to
run his own business.
the Second World War he joined the Auxiliary Fire service in Bath and
found himself fighting many fires caused by German air raids, not only
in Bath but Bristol and Weston-super-Mare too. He sold his plumbing
business but started it up again after the war eventually employing 28
men. He retired when he was sixty-five.
Patch was married to Ada for 57 years but in that time he never spoke
to her, or their two sons, about his wartime experiences, nor would he
watch any war films or attend any military reunion or remembrance
celebration. He described the November 11th Remembrance Day Ceremonies
as "just show business". He said he would never return to Belgium where
he had fought and been wounded.
four years after the death of his first wife, Harry Patch married
again. His second wife, Jean, died in 1984.
Patch is persuaded to speak about the First World War
turned 100 Harry Patch went into a care home and found that newspapers
and television companies were beginning to take a keen interest in him
and his wartime experiences. He began to talk of scenes that he had
relived in his mind daily for over eighty years.
recalled, with a sense of guilt, crawling across no-man's land with the
wounded crying out in agony all around him and just passing them by. He
remembered the mud and blood of the battlefield as they advanced from
Pilckem Ridge, near Ypres. He remembered the rats, the lice, the
biscuits they were given as food but which were too hard to eat. He
remembered coming across a still-living shattered bleeding wreck of a
man who begged Patch to shoot him, but in the time of Patch's
indecision the man uttered the cry "Mother!" and died.
German soldier ran at Patch pointing his bayonet towards him, Patch,
with only three bullets left in his revolver, fired one above the man's
ankle and another above his knee. Patch remembered with a certain
thankfulness that he had never killed a man.
about the making of documentaries he said, “You can
make the programme, you can
imitate a shell burst by a thunderclap firework . . . you
everything, except the fear. . . Everyone who
claimed not have been afraid at the front was a liar. . ."
He declared that "No war is worth the loss of a
Harry Patch did return to Belgium and laid wreaths to commemorate his
own battalion but he also went to the German cemetery at Langemarck to
commemorate the German war dead.
He said "I feel humbled that I
should be representing an entire generation. Today is not for me. It is
for the countless millions who did not come home with their lives
intact. They are the heroes," he said. "It is also important we
remember those who lost their lives on both sides."
final years Harry Patch attended more remembrance events and spoke more
on television, at festivals and to school children.
Harry Patch is honoured
Patch was honoured by the French and Belgian governments.
He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French
Government on his 101st birthday. Later, President Sarkozy made him an
Officer of the Legion d'Honneur.
In 2008, the King of Belgian, Albert II, appointed
Harry Patch Knight of the Order of Leopold.
in 2008 the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote a poem about Harry
Patch - The Five Acts of Harry Patch.
friend, Jim Ross said of him, "While the country may remember Harry as
a soldier, we will remember him as a dear friend. He was a man of peace
who used his great age and fame as the last survivor of the trenches to
communicate two simple messages: Remember with gratitude and respect
those who served on all sides, (and) settle disputes by discussion, not
Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, (Head of the British
Army), on hearing of Harry Patch's death issued this statement:
about his experiences in the trenches he was no less effective in
describing the horror they represented when invited to speak to
schoolchildren about the realities of war. 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."
Elizabeth II said, "We will never forget the bravery and enormous
sacrifice of his generation."
A couple of years before his
death Harry Patch co-operated with historian. Richard van Emden, to
write his book, The Last Fighting Tommy.
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