Thursday, August 6, 2009

RIP, Harry Patch

The last English survivor of the trench warfare of World War I, Harry Patch, died a few days ago. His funeral was held today.

According to the Daily Mail:

All 1,400 seats in Wells Cathedral were filled while thousands more gathered in the rainy precincts and streets outside to say farewell to the last soldier of the Great War, the 'last fighting Tommy', the last man who had known the smell of the trenches and the horrors that lay beyond them.

The plumber from Combe Down had always rejected suggestions of a state funeral for the last of the last. But this was not far off. The governments and armies of four nations - including Germany - had sent delegations to salute the 111-year-old.

. . .

England's smallest city had been filling up from breakfast time as people from all over Britain came to pay their respects to an entire epoch. Crowds of all ages lined the streets to the city centre from Fletcher House, Mr Patch's care home for the last 12 years of his life.

As the hearse proceeded at walking speed, it was followed by six pall-bearers from the 1st Battalion The Rifles (five of whom have recently returned from fighting in Afghanistan). Mr Patch had specifically asked that his pall-bearers should be roughly the same age as he was - 19 - when he was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in Ypres in 1917.

He had also requested that his funeral should be a statement of peace and reconciliation, with invitations extended to allies and old foes alike. So, the coffin was also escorted by two soldiers from, respectively, Belgium, France and Germany.

'We really appreciate the generous gesture,' said Dr Eckhard Lubkemeier, charge d'affaires at the German Embassy. He had been invited to read one of the lessons at the service.

. . .

In keeping with the multinational flavour of the occasion, it was the Belgian charge d'affaires, Marie-France Andre, who delivered an extract from Mr Patch's autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy.

She read out his recollection of the moment when a horribly wounded comrade had begged Harry to shoot him.

'He was beyond all human help and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was "Mother!",' Mr Patch had written.

'I'm positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I've always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.'

Mr Patch's friend, Jim Ross, spoke of the way in which Harry had 'imprisoned' the 'demon' of his war memories for 80 years before speaking about the horror of Ypres.

'He didn't go public to become our oldest author or meet fine people in fancy palaces,' said Mr Ross.

'He let it out so we could hear his message of peace and reconciliation. He was the plumber from Combe Down who showed us true heroism.'

Outside, thousands looked on, courtesy of a huge screen on Cathedral Green. They joined in singing Mr Patch's favourite hymns - O God Our Help In Ages Past and Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind - and they stood in solemn silence as his coffin emerged.

Before being driven away for a private burial, it paused for the Last Post after which another old friend, Nick Fear, recited the famous epitaph: 'They shall grow not old...'

Mr Fear then read out the names of the three mates Harry always thought of whenever the bugle sounded. He had always referred to the men by their nicknames - Jack, Jill and Maudy.

They were all killed on Pilkem Ridge by the same shell which wounded Mr Patch in the groin in 1917, and ended his war (after a traumatic operation without anaesthetic).

Yesterday was a tribute not just to Harry, not just to Jack, Jill and Maudy but to the millions of others, so many of whom went to their graves almost a century ago.

In his later years, Harry Patch saw it as his life's mission to make us remember them all in perpetuity.

He must be getting quite a welcome on the other side.

There's much more at the link, including many more photographs. Recommended reading.

Here's a video clip about Harry's life, including him speaking about his memories.

And here's coverage of today's funeral.

From this veteran of another war, to a departed comrade: in the words of William Shakespeare, may 'flights of angels sing thee to thy rest'. Sleep well, Sir. You've earned it. We shall remember you.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I presume the sh**bird in the white house was too busy trying to steal our guns(CITA) and destroy our healthcare system care to bother notice this.