On the 25th of July, 2009, Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch passed away at the 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.
Harry Patch was conscripted in October 1916, and by June 1917, aged just 19 years, 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.
In one of the most moving passages of his book, ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’, he recalls crawling past men crying for help all around, both English and German, without being able to stop and help them. He did, however, stop for a young man who was lying ripped open from shoulder to waist, begging 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.
On the 22nd of September 1917 came the worst day of the war for Harry, the day when a shell burst over his Lewis Gun section, killing 3 of his friends. Harry was struck by a piece of shrapnel in the groin, and endured the agony of it being removed without anaesthetic. 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.
‘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.