On 25th July, 2009, Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch passed away at the lofty age of 111. With him died the living memories of the trenches of World War One, for he was the last survivor who served on the Western Front. Thanks to his 2007 autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, his recollections are preserved as part of Great War history, but he would have been the last person to wish his actual experiences on anybody.
Harry Patch in fact never wished to go to war. His brother had signed up to the Forces before it began, and served with the Royal Engineers at Mons. He was invalided home after being badly wounded, and told his family of the horrors he had seen. When Harry was conscripted in October 1916, therefore, he was not exactly looking forward to life in the trenches. By June 1917, aged just 19, he found himself on the Front at Passchendaele, serving as a Lance Corporal with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and operating a Lewis Gun. There, he watched in horror as men from the Yorkshire and Lancashire regiments were ordered to charge over the top into No-Man’s Land, only to be unceremoniously mown down by the enemy machine guns.
Two or three weeks later, his turn to run headlong into danger came at Pilckem Ridge. In one of the most moving passages of his book he recalls crawling past men crying for help all around, both English and German, without being able to stop and help. He did, however, stop for a young man who was lying ripped open from shoulder to waist, and begged to be shot. In the end the kindly bullet wasn’t needed, as by the time Harry had his gun ready the man had died, with a surprised and joyful cry of “Mother” on his lips. He learned later that the soldier’s mother had passed already away, and speculated that the dying man felt he was going to join her. Moving on to the second row of German trenches, Harry was forced to shoot a German soldier who, although out of ammunition, charged bravely towards him with raised bayonet, perhaps hoping to kick the Lewis Gun into the mud. Harry spared his foe, wounding him in the shoulder, leg and ankle rather than anywhere more dangerous. He hoped he was taking him out of the war. Harry never shot to kill, and as far as he knows he never took a German life.
However, that didn’t prevent others from trying to take his. On 22nd September 1917 came the worst day of the war for Harry, the day when a shell burst over his Lewis Gun section. Harry was struck by a piece of shrapnel in the groin, and endured the agony of it being removed without anaesthetic; however, more lasting pain for him came from the fact that the same blast killed three of his very close unit. He later said, “I reacted very badly. It was like losing part of my life. It upset me more than anything. We had only been together four months, but with hell going on around us, it seemed like a lifetime.”
Life at the Front really did end for Harry that day, as he was invalided home to Southampton and, though he was not demobilised until the end of the war, never returned to the trenches. He did, however, serve as a volunteer firefighter in World War Two, and even worked as a maintenance manager at the US army camp, helping with the preparations for D-Day. The first time he went back to Belgium was in 2003, when he started crying on the coach and couldn’t bring himself to step down to place his wreath on what had been the battlefield, the memories being too much to cope with. Somebody had to do it for him.
Although he later outlived two wives, raised sons, built up his own plumbing business and worked on the Wills Memorial Tower at Bristol University, he never forgot what he and others had gone through during the war.
He wrote in his autobiography, “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.” Throughout his last years he continually spoke out against war, and when he met Tony Blair in 2006 he expressed the opinion that no soldier should ever have been shot for cowardice in the field.
Harry Patch now lies at peace in the English countryside that he fought to keep free, at Monkton Combe close to his home area of Combe Down, Somerset. The graveyard is well-kept, quiet and sun-drenched, with just the rustle of autumn leaves to be heard; a few had made their way onto the grave, so we tidied them off and cleared one or two small weeds while we were at it. There are lovely views over green wooded hills, and he is surrounded once more by the brothers-in-arms who died in the conflict he survived: to name just a few, E.S. (Edwin Sidney) Hiscock, Boy, Royal Air Force, 328881, who died 23rd April 1919, tragically young at 16; J.H. (John Henry) Harris, Light Corporal, Somerset Light Infantry, 17479, who died 13th March 1917, aged 38; and F.J. Macey, Sapper, Royal Engineers, 734, who died 14th June 1915, aged 18.
These were just the graves we spotted and lingered by. Also somewhere in the yard, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, lie Albert Edward Ferris, Serjeant, Somerset Light Infantry, 3/7248, who died 4th October 1916, aged 33; Eric William Grant, Private, Bedfordshire Regiment, 66463, who died 2nd March 1919, aged 18; and last but not least, V.B. Wilkinson, Gunner, Royal Garrison Artillery, 170065, who died 1st April 1919. These are of course only the men who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Great War. No doubt there are many more war heroes who survived, like Harry, in that one small village graveyard. How many war heroes are commemorated near you? Be sure to pay them a visit on or around Remembrance Day, and perhaps bring some flowers, to make sure their sacrifice for Britain is not forgotten in this Centenary year.