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Harry Patch, 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.

He 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.

He was 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.

Harry Patch's last battle

But 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.

The 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.

He was sent home to England to recuperate in a series of hospitals over the next year.

Harry Patch's life as a civilian

In 1919 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.

He 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.

During 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.

Harry Patch's silence

Harry 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.

In 1980, four years after the death of his first wife, Harry Patch married again. His second wife, Jean, died in 1984.

Harry Patch is persuaded to speak about the First World War

When he 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.

He 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.

When a 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.

Talking about the making of documentaries he said, “You can make the programme, you can imitate a shell burst by a thunderclap firework . . .   you can improvise 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 couple of lives, let alone thousands."

Harry Patch and remembrance

In 2007 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."

In his final years Harry Patch attended more remembrance events and spoke more on television, at festivals and to school children.

Harry Patch is honoured

Harry 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.

Also in 2008 the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote a poem about Harry Patch -  The Five Acts of Harry Patch.

His 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 war."

Gen. Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, (Head of the British Army), on hearing of Harry Patch's death issued this statement:

"Self-effacing 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."

Queen Elizabeth II said, "We will never forget the bravery and enormous sacrifice of his generation."

Harry Patch's Book

A couple of years before his death Harry Patch co-operated with historian. Richard van Emden, to write his book, The Last Fighting Tommy.

David Roberts.

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The Last Tommy

In the first light of dawn on this their final day
Shouldered arms, in perfect step the Duke's men come my way.
Buttons, buckles badges glint as though made of gold.
Finally it is ended and their story is all told
For marching with them now the last Tommy takes his place.
The pride and comradeship I see it in every smiling face.
Now following on behind another column of men
Another and another. I think it will have no end.
Here Scots Guards, The Manchesters, The Sherwoods line after line
On parade for the World to see this one last glorious time.
Age has not wearied them. The years all fall away.
All are whole. All are healthy on this day of days.
The War is finally over and all our boys are home at last
And as they vanish down the line no backward glance is cast.

Paul Maxwell
Copyright ©2009 Paul Maxwell

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The last surviving soldier of the First World War, Harry Patch, died on 25 July 2009.

At last the war is over

Thank God!
The First World War
is finally over.
The last reluctant
and terrified soldier,
dear Harry Patch,
is dead.

All the stories
that can be told
have now been told.
All the lessons
that can be learned
have been learned.
There's no more history
to be written.
Everything that can be said
has been said.

David Roberts
2 September 2009
Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the firing of the opening shots of the Second World War by the Germans on the Polish port of Danzig (now known as Gdansk). World leaders and survivors came to remember the event and acknowledge the terrible loss, suffering and error of this war. The Second World War was anticipated from the end of the First World War - as quotations in Minds at War reveal. For example, Siegfried Sassoon described the peace treaty that was concluded after the war as "a peace to end peace".

Videos of and about Harry Patch and links to poems

Harry Patch GM TV - News of his funeral and interviews with Harry

Harry Patch at 109 visiting Passchendaele

The last Fighting Tommy
Music by Michael Kamen and picture sequence

Radiohead's musical tribute to Harry Patch ( a pity the words are indistinct and the singing weak)

See Andrew Motion perform his poem for Harry Patch .

Text of Andrew Motion's poem about the life of Harry Patch

Carol Ann Duffy's poem for Harry Patch

Executions for desertion in the First World War includes interviews with Henry Allingham, and Harry Patch

Andrew Motion talks about being a war poet