The Death of Harry Patch
- July 25th 2009 -
12 days after Harry Patch died his funeral took place at Wells Cathedral. Harry, the last surviving man who had fought in the trenches during World War 1, had lived in a nursing home in Wells for the last years of his life. He had not wanted a state funeral but there was huge interest, mixed with sadness, in the passing of this generation. Queen Elizabeth II said, "We will never forget the bravery and enormous sacrifice of his generation." General Sir Richard Dannett, Chief of the General Staff was in attendance. People had camped out overnight to get one of the 1050 places in the cathedral and the service was shown live on television. Harry Patch had requested that no guns should be worn by the many military personnel present. The cathedral bell was tolled 111 times. Elgar’s wonderful piece, Nimrod, was played as the coffin was escorted out of Cathedral Green and thousands more were lining the streets. Pensioner Jim Ross, who had known Harry, spoke on behalf of the family:
"He could have dealt with it by ignoring the whole thing completely, but in fact he decided to use this to represent his generation with a message which he thought they would have wanted broadcast and that message was one of peace and reconciliation.
"The torment that he'd been hiding, concealing, for so many years, he let that out and he suffered as a result, but he got his message out and I hope that the funeral service at Wells Cathedral will make that message again - that peace and reconciliation is the way forward.
"He realised he was one of a dwindling band and that as that band decreased in numbers, he was becoming more and more significant. He had the choice of either creeping away into the background or making his message known.
"These were memories of horror and terror, I don't know how a man deals with that, I don't know how Harry dealt with that. It must have been very painful for him.
"His decision to go public was a very brave decision which cost him dear.
"Harry knew that by speaking out, the memories would come back, the demons I call them, would come back to torment and torture him. I believe they did, but I believe Harry made the decision because he wanted to get his message broadcast.
"His prime message is that we should settle disputes by negotiation and compromise, not by war.
"His other message would be that irrespective of the uniforms they wore, they were all victims, and we're trying to show that in the cortege, where Harry's coffin will be accompanied by not just riflemen from the United Kingdom but two from France, two from Belgium and two from Germany.
"The people of Wells, Somerset, the country, will think of him as a grand old representative of a brave old generation. But I will just think of him as Harry, my old friend."
Later that August day his coffin was taken on a last tour of Combe Down, near Bath, where he had grown up, the son of a stone mason. Once again people lined the street to pay their respects before he was taken to the graveyard down the hill in Monkton Combe for a private burial.
Harry, born in 1898, left Combe Down School aged 15 and became a registered plumber in 1916. His older brother had seen action at Mons with the Royal Engineers and had been invalided out of the army. He had told Harry about the horrors of the trenches, “And I did not want to go”. However in October 1916 he was conscripted and after six months training was sent to the Western Front. He was a Lewis gun operator and he spoke of the early morning inspections when the gun had to be cleaned, oiled and loaded with great care.
The Lewis gun had replaced the Vickers machine gun early in 1916, which was heavier and less mobile. It had the distinctive top loading drum-pan magazines and each gun had a team of five who would operate it. Soldiers in the infantry regiments who operated these guns wore the LG badge on the sleeve as well as the crossed guns. Many considered this a suicide badge as if caught the Germans usually killed anyone who wore it as it would have cost many lives. Lewis gun operators were excused much of the work of an infantry soldier, such as cleaning the latrines, due to their importance in maintaining the defence of the trench system and the time it took to keep the Lewis gun operative. If it jammed during an assault on a trench it could be very costly indeed. Nicknamed the “Belgian Rattlesnake” it would be moved around a fair amount as the enemy would try and locate its position in the trench and take it out. The five in the team would be numbered. Number 1 would carry the gun and be in charge of its position. Number 2 would carry the spare parts and numbers 3, 4 and 5 the ammunition. Each of these three was expected to carry about 200 rounds and thus each member of the team carried about three stone more than other men. Numbers 1 and 2 also had their Lee Enfield rifle removed to help them carry what was required and were given a Webley pistol instead.
In June 1917 Harry was promoted to Lance Corporal in the Cornwall Light Infantry and was present at the 3rd battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele as it became known. It was not until a few weeks later, at Pilekem Ridge, that he was sent “Over the top”. “I can still see the bewilderment and fear on men’s faces as we went over the top. We crawled because if you stood up you’d be killed. All over the place you could hear English and Germans crying out for help.” He also described the moment a German soldier came towards him with a bayonet aimed at his chest and how he aimed at his ankle and knee and brought him down knowing he would be taken as POW to a field hospital and eventually back to his family. “We never fired to kill, keep the gun low and wound them in the legs and bring them down,” he would say. “I never killed a German. Always kept it low.”
However on September 21st 1917 a shell hit his Lewis gun. Three of the team were killed instantly – those carrying the ammunition were blown to pieces. Harry had a piece of shrapnel in his groin two inches long and half an inch wide. He was put on a hospital ship and sailed to Southampton where his injuries were deemed so bad he could not return to the front. When the doctors removed the shrapnel he was given no anesthetic. 4 people held down his arms and legs and it was taken out. “I reacted very badly,” he said, “It was like losing a part of my life. We had had been together as a team for only four months, but with all the hell going on around us it seemed like a lifetime.”
He never talked about his experiences, not even to his wife Ada or his two sons. During World War 2 he was too old to be in the army so volunteered for the fire service and then became a maintenance engineer at Street, near Glastonbury, for the US Army camp.
He later retired from plumbing in 1963 and his first wife died in 1978. His second wife, Jean, died six years later. In 2003 he returned to Ypres for the first time. “I was supposed to lay a wreath in memory of my dead friends but I couldn’t. I looked out from the coach window and the memories flooded back and I wept. The wreath was laid on my behalf.” He was awarded the Legion d'Honneur by the French Government on his 101st birthday. Later, President Sarkozy made him an Officer of the Legion d'Honneur. In 2004 he went to meet one of the last surviving German soldiers and they exchanged gifts. In 2008, the King of Belgian, Albert II, appointed Harry Patch Knight of the Order of Leopold. In 2012 the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, wrote a poem called the Death of Harry Patch to commemorate Armistice Day.
I was fortunate to be living in Monkton Combe at the time of his funeral and visited the freshly dug grave that evening. It was a simple mound of earth. Having watched some of the events unfold on television it was a surreal and very moving moment to be all alone in that graveyard in silence with the sun going down behind me. It was indeed the end of an era. There was no one alive to recount first hand the horrors of life on the Western Front, in the trenches. As Jim Ross had said, Harry had the opportunity of making his message known and in 2007 he had written his book, “The Last Surviving Tommy”. I am so glad he did.