Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier to have fought in the First World War, died aged 111 in July. Conscripted in 1917, he went “over the top” at the Battle of Passchendaele, in which half a million men died on both sides. It was probably only his being seriously injured and taken out of the front line that enabled him to survive the war and live to such a great age.
For many years, Patch did not talk about the war, working as a plumber and acting as a fireman in the Second World War. Only when he was one of the last remaining soldiers and aged 100 did he begin to talk about his experiences.
The person who emerged into the spotlight was someone who hated war, which he described as “organised murder” and the result of quarrels between politicians, who should have fought it out amongst themselves rather than causing the death of millions. “The First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War…Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it. I would have taken the Kaiser, his son, Hitler, and the people on his side and bloody shot them. Out the way and saved millions of lives. ‘Tisn’t worth it.”
It is unclear whether Patch was an absolute pacifist, who would not have fought under any circumstances. But it is clear that he wished to commemorate the First World War in a non-militarist and deeply human way, not restricted to those who fought on the same side.
He met a German veteran of the war and, in a recent BBC film, can also be seen placing a Cross of Remembrance on a German war grave. This was not merely a gesture of reconciliation but a recognition that the soldiers on both sides had faced the same fate and shared a common humanity.
I found this particularly moving as my two grandfathers fought on opposing sides on the Western Front. One in the British Army won the MC for killing Germans. The other won the Iron Cross for killing Brits or French (which did not save him from getting murdered by the Nazis).
Patch’s death faced the British establishment with a problem. As the last soldier, he had to be commemorated, but his views and clearly expressed wishes for his funeral (where his coffin was carried by British, French, Belgian and German soldiers) meant that he could not just be treated like any other prominent soldier and given a military funeral.
Gordon Brown, who has the ability to strike the wrong note by repeating a cliché on almost any occasion, talked about Patch “fighting for our freedoms”. Yet during the First World War many British soldiers — not to mention women or many peoples of the British empire — would not have had the right to vote. And on returning from the war, many of them were thrown on the scrap heap without jobs or the promised “homes fit for heroes”.
It is appropriate that the last survivor of the First World War should have been someone who used his longevity to speak of the horror and pointlessness of that war. Even if we have a more radical view of why the war happened, Patch deserves recognition and respect as someone from whom it elicited a human understanding rather than nationalist or militarist hatreds.