'The best memorial for the likes of me would be to look after the soldiers who are still fighting for their country now and, equally importantly, their families.'

Private Harry Patch, the last surviving British soldier to fight in the trenches, died on July 25, 2009, at the age of 111.

 
 
 
In Memory of
 
Private Harry Patch 1898 - 2009
 
The Last Tommy
 
 
'Harry Patch was my hero... the gentlest of souls with a fighting spirit to the end '
by his biographer Richard Van Emden

 
Private Harry Patch was the oldest man in Britain, the last Tommy, the last foot soldier of the First World War, the last man to serve in the trenches in the 'war to end all wars', the last of that fighting breed.

They didn't talk a lot about what they had done, seen and suffered.

For 80 years, Harry breathed not a word of it, not to his two wives nor his two sons. But in his last decade, he worked tirelessly at keeping the memory alive.

I met Harry 11 years ago while researching a TV documentary. Gradually, I became his friend and eventually his biographer. Several times I was lucky enough to accompany him on what had become almost an annual pilgrimage to Flanders.

Last September, Harry made his final journey to the killing fields where he first went into battle as a 19-year-old private on August 16, 1917. I watched as he unveiled a memorial at the spot where he went over the top in the bloody battle of Passchendaele, in which he saw scores of his comrades shot to pieces by German machine-gunners.

He told me solemnly: 'I had to come back here. This may be the last time I can return to the battlefields but I wanted to keep alive the memory of the fallen.'

The memorial is to the dead of his division in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. But it also marks the passing of the lost First World War generation. On his previous visits to the Belgian battlefields, I had watched Harry relapse into reflective mood.

He would sit under the Menin Gate and look at some of the tens of thousands of names of those soldiers with no known graves.

In his wheelchair, he would visit remote cemeteries looking at the identities of the youthful dead.

It was assumed he was looking for the resting place of his three best mates in their machine-gun crew, who were blown to oblivion by a German shell that seriously wounded him in September 1917.

Having wiped the event from his memory for the span of a normal lifetime, it appeared he could only recall their nicknames.

Harry's most reflective moments were always at Tyne Cot cemetery, near Ypres. He would always ask to be left in a particular spot in front of the vast wall that is the memorial to the missing - all 35,000 of them.

He would always stare at the panel that contained the dead of his regiment. He would have a really deep moment, lost to the world for many minutes.

Although he told everyone he never knew the names of his three best friends, he did hint to me once that they had made a pact that they would never talk about the horrors of war they had witnessed. He never let on - but I have come to believe that perhaps there on that stone panel at Tyne Cot, he was keeping his peace with those three mates.

His eyes were piercing and knowing. They were also kind.

When I visited Harry last week at his care home in Wells, Somerset, to tell him of the death of our previous oldest man, fellow First World War veteran Henry Allingham, 113, I realised he was too frail and ill to be told.

They had a great affinity and Henry's death would have been quite a shock to Harry.

Harry was my hero. He was the gentlest of souls but had a fighting spirit to the end. He was critical of politicians' calls to mark the passing of the last First World War soldiers with official ceremonies.

'They should have thought of doing more for the veterans and widows long ago when boys came back from the war bloodied and broken - or not at all,' he said.

'The best memorial for the likes of me would be to look after the soldiers who are still fighting for their country now and, equally importantly, their families.'

Richard van Emden was talking to Nigel Blundell.

 

The Queen paid tribute to him, saying: "I was saddened to hear of the death this morning of Harry Patch, the last British survivor or the First World War. We will never forget the bravery and enormous sacrifice of his generation, which will continue to serve as an example to us all."

The Prince of Wales also expressed his sadness, telling the BBC: "The Great War is a chapter in our history we must never forget, so many sacrifices were made, so many young lives lost. So today nothing could give me greater pride than paying tribute to Harry Patch from Somerset.

"Harry was involved in numerous bouts of heavy fighting on the front line but amazingly remained unscathed for a while. Tragically one night in September 1917 when in the morass in the Ypres Salient a German shrapnel shell burst over head badly wounding Harry and killing three of his closest friends.

"In spite of the comparatively short time that he served with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Harry always cherished the extraordinary camaraderie that the appalling conditions engendered in the battalion and remained loyal to the end."

Chief Executive of Somerset Care, Andrew Larpent, said Mr Patch had been unwell for some time and had died peacefully in his bed.

He said: "His friends and his family have been here. He just quietly slipped away at 9am this morning. It was how he would have wanted it, without having to be moved to hospitals but here, peacefully with his friends and carers."

Mr Patch never revelled in the fact that he was one of the last survivors of a war which had claimed the lives of so many of his friends. "I don't like it," he once said when asked what it was like. "I sit there and think. And some nights I dream - of that first battle. I can't forget it."

Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt said: "I know I speak on behalf of all ranks of the British Army in expressing my sadness on hearing the news of the passing of Harry Patch. Self-effacing about his experiences in the trenches he was no less effective in describing the horror they represented when invited to speak to schoolchildren about the realities of war. He was the last of a generation that in youth was steadfast in its duty in the face of cruel sacrifice and we give thanks for his life - as well as those of his comrades - for upholding the same values and freedom that we continue to cherish and fight for today."

Gordon Brown, added: " "I had the honour of meeting Harry, and I share his family's grief at the passing of a great man. I know that the whole nation will unite today to honour the memory, and to take pride in the generation that fought the Great War. The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force: 'We will remember them'."

Veterans Minister Kevan Jones, who has also met Mr Patch added: "It was my great pleasure to have met Harry Patch and I am deeply saddened by his death. Harry was a dignified and thoughtful representative of a brave and selfless generation. I am sure that I speak on behalf of veterans and serving members of our forces when I express my pride in his conduct as the last Tommy.

When Mr Patch was born in Coombe Down, near Bath, on June 17, 1898, the Marquess of Salisbury was Prime Minister and Queen Victoria had two and a half years still to reign.

Kitchener was 11 weeks away from fighting the Battle of Omdurman and the outbreak of the Boer War lay 16 months into the future. H G Wells's latest work, The War of the Worlds, had just been published in book form following its successful serialisation in Pearson's Magazine.

He grew up in Coombe Down, near Bath, left school at 15 and trained as a plumber. He was 16 when war broke out and reached 18 just as conscription was being introduced. He joined the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry.

"I knew what it was going to be like: dirty, filthy, insanitary," he said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph.

He was removed from the front line on September 22 1917, after being injured in an artillery bombardment which killed his friends.

Mr Patch recalled: "I can remember the shell bursting. I saw the flash, I must have passed out. The next thing I could remember was the dressing station. A wound in my groin. The nurse painted something around it to stop the lice getting at it. I was given a good hot bath. The lice came off - you could pick them up with a shovel - bloody things.''

He was too old to fight in the Second World War and worked as a sanitary engineer in American army camps in the south-west. He retired in 1963. Following his first wife's death in 1976, he married again at the age of 81. His second wife died seven years ago.

Last year on his 110th birthday the Belgian Ambassador, Jean-Michel Veranneman presented him with Belgium's highest military accolade. The Knights of Leopold medal was bestowed by the King of Belgium in recognition of Mr Patch's participation in the bloody battle of Passchendaele.

In March, Mr Patch received the insignia of the Legion d'Honneur from the French Ambassador, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, at his Somerset nursing home.

 

 Private Harry Patch 1898 - 2009