If war had not broken out between the European super-powers in August 1914, no doubt Harry Patch – born when Queen Victoria was on the throne – would have lived his life in peace, raising his family, earning an honest living as a plumber and dying, as he did last Saturday, the world’s oldest man.
He would not have been heaped with honours, had a racehorse and a cider named after him, rubbed shoulders with kings, queens and heads of states, become the subject of a best-selling book and a poem by the Poet Laureate or been interviewed by countless journalists from home and abroad.
The spotlight fell on Harry Patch in 1998 when, aged 100 years and 80 years after the end of the First World War, he finally decided to tell his story to the world in the hope of using his experiences in the interests of peace.
For the last week of his long life, he had the distinction of being the world’s oldest man, following the death of one of the two last survivors of both the 20th century’s global conflicts, Henry Allingham.
Yet his survival to the ripe old age of 111 had far greater significance. More than 15 million people died in the First World War and Patch was very nearly one of those statistics.
He was not only the last surviving Tommy to have fought on the Western Front – he was also the last man standing from the bloody and terrifying Battle of Passchendaele fought in the Ypres Salient in the summer and autumn of 1917.
The war poet and survivor of the battle also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Siegfried Sassoon, coined the fight’s enduring epitaph: ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’.
After the war, as the land around Ypres lay devastated and unrecognisable to its returning inhabitants, Winston Churchill – who briefly fought in the Salient – said that the name of Ypres would forever be engraved on British hearts because of the price paid over four years of fighting. Yet 90 years after peace was brokered, the long-drawn-out suffering and fortitude of the Tommies in the Salient is overshadowed by one day’s fighting on the Somme. The first day of the Battle of the Somme was a national disaster.
So was Passchendaele, which cost more than half a million lives on both sides over three months. The Germans lost about 250,000 and the British 300,000, including 36,500 Australians and many Channel Islanders. Ninety thousand British or Australian bodies were never identified and 42,000 were never recovered.
Ypres, the village of Passchendaele and hundreds of other towns, villages, hamlets and farmhouses have been rebuilt and nature has restored the hedgerows, streams and woods that were destroyed in the first mass mechanised war. The only evidence of the battles and the trenches are the memorials and cemeteries still visited to this day by people from all over the world.
Nearly a century on, the British and Commonwealth descendants of the ‘Lost Generation’ still grieve for and remember those who paid the highest price for their country.
Their sacrifice defines the national psyche of the British, Australians, Canadians, French and all the nations who lost their youth in the ‘war to end all wars.’ The carnage of the First World War destroyed hope, dreams and expectations; it divided continents, shaped foreign policy for decades to come and sowed the seeds of resentment that fuelled the Second World War and which continue to flame the conflicts of today.
Harry Patch was the last living embodiment of the Western Front, though he is survived by three other veterans – a Canadian, an American and British-born Claude Choules, who emigrated to Australia in 1926 and who served in the Australian Navy in the Second World War.
Passchendaele epitomises the extraordinary bravery of the ordinary fighting soldier, who attempted what was quite obviously impossible to all but the remote High Command – and achieved success.
The loyalty and tenacity of men like Harry Patch to dig deep and summon something extraordinary to overcome overwhelming adversity and fear is to be admired. It is this solidarity in adversity and appalling life-threatening conditions that is the endearing legacy of the First World War.
Harry Patch’s war ended not long after it began on 22 September 1917 when a German shell exploded in No Man’s Land as his unit was heading back from the front line. The explosion killed his three closest friends in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. His injuries were serious enough to win him a ticket back to Blighty and a lifetime of painful memories and frightening dreams which he never shared with anyone, not even his first wife, family or friends.
Ninety years ago Harry Patch was one of many lucky survivors with similar stories. However, what will make him stand out for ever more is that he was not just the last living link with one of the bloodiest battles in military history but from the fighting on the entire Western Front.
He was not a hero and is special simply because he lived longer than any of his comrades.
Nonetheless, he is a role model for a society that places celebrity and decadence above the outdated codes of morality, decency and honest hard work that were the social mores when Harry Patch went to war.
Even in the height of battle, he could not bring himself to shoot to kill, as that would have meant breaking one of the Ten Commandments, so he always aimed to wound.
He was recently quoted as saying: ‘World War One is history – it isn’t news. Forget it!’
We can’t and must not forget it, nor the men like Harry Patch who fought, were wounded, died or have no known grave.
I hope that in death Harry Patch finds the peace that eluded him in life and that he is once again reunited with his three lost pals.