Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Unique Military Funeral of Harry Patch, the Last Tommy of World War I


(Thanks to Kathy Compagno for bringing this to our attention.)

Harry Patch at Age 109
Patch,  Henry John  [Harry]  (1898–2009), soldier and plumber, and longest surviving British veteran of the First World War, was born on 17 June 1898 at Fonthill Cottage, Combe Down, Somerset, the youngest of three sons (there were no daughters) of William John Patch (1863–1945), master stonemason, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, neĆ© Morris (1875–1951). He left school at 14 to start a plumbing apprenticeship with Jacob Long & Sons, one of the area's leading builders, and had no inclination whatever to volunteer for service when war was declared two years later. Instead he continued his apprenticeship and studied for the examination of the London Guild of Registered Plumbers, which he passed toward the end of 1915. The following year conscription was introduced and he was called up in October. "I didn't want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to," he recalled. "I wasn't at all patriotic. I went and did what was asked of me and no more."  (Patch and van Emden, 59)

In June 1917 Patch embarked for France, where he was drafted to the 7th battalion of the Duke of York's Light Infantry as a Lewis gunner. Lewis gun teams consisted of five men: Patch was no. 2, whose responsibility was to carry spare parts, including a heavy additional barrel, so that if the gun became damaged it could be quickly repaired in situ. Towards the end of July, the regiment moved into the front line to take part in the third battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele, with the immediate objective of ousting German troops from the village of Langemarck. Patch and his team went into action in the early hours of 16 August near Pilckem Ridge. During the advance, he came across a young British soldier "ripped open from shoulder to waist," who begged to be put out of his misery. It was an image that would haunt Patch for the rest of his life.  (Patch and van Emden, 94) The team had made a highly irregular pact not to kill anyone unless their own lives were in danger, so when they saw a German soldier running towards them with a fixed bayonet while they were providing covering fire for advancing troops, Patch used his service pistol merely to put the man safely out of action.

The Casket at Wells Cathedral
Note the Escorting Soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany

On the night of 22 September, while the team was making its way across open ground to the reserve line, a stray shell burst directly above them and Patch received a shrapnel wound in the groin. It was only while he was recuperating in a military hospital in Liverpool that he learned that three of the gun-team had been killed by the shell, a loss which affected him deeply. By August 1918 he was deemed fit to resume training and was on the Isle of Wight when the Armistice was declared.

Exiting the Cathedral

On 18 July 2009 Harry Patch became the last officially recognized World War I British veteran, a distinction he held for just one week. He died at Fletcher House on 25 July. Having declined a state funeral, he had nevertheless agreed to a large public one at Wells Cathedral, which was held on 6 August and broadcast live on television. It was designed to reflect his belief that all those who fought in wars were victims, irrespective of the uniform they wore. His coffin was borne into the cathedral by six currently serving men from his old regiment, flanked by two infantrymen from Belgium, two from France, and two from Germany—all of them, at his request, unarmed and as young as he had been at Passchendaele. Even ceremonial weapons were banned from the service, at which representatives of the Belgian, German, and French governments gave the readings. Patch's body was then taken to Monkton Combe church, where his family and ancestors lay, for a private burial.

From: Text from oxforddnb-lotd@oup.com and photos from Wikipedia and The Guardian

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful story. 111 is a great age for anyone to reach. Served his country and went on with his life. Planned his funeral as a man of peace.

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