The last Tommy

Five million infantrymen fought in the first world war. One of them is still alive: Harry Patch, interviewed by James Delingpole in this week’s Spectator:

How marvellous it is to be in the presence of living history. At 109, Harry may be only Britain’s second oldest man but he holds distinctions far more extraordinary than that: he is the only man left to have fought at Passchendaele; the only one left to have gone over the top. Indeed, of the five million infantrymen who fought between 1914 and 1918, Harry Patch is now the last man standing.

As of two years ago he could still change the magazine on a Lewis gun in two seconds.

Patch describes going over the top on 16 August 1917, into a no-man’s land “rendered a quagmire by constant shelling and the unseasonal rain”:

Driven forward by an officer with drawn revolver (‘I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anyone that didn’t go over would be shot for cowardice’), Patch and his pals advanced through a sea of bodies. They had a pact: ‘Bob said we wouldn’t kill, not if we could help it. He said: “We fire short, have them in the legs, or fire over their heads, but not to kill, unless it’s them or us.”’

Incidentally, that last point provides some corroboration for the factoid I mentioned in a recent BHT post: that only 15 to 20 percent of soldiers in the second world war were willing to fire at the enemy. (Don’t worry, though: improved training, including the use of human-shaped targets, has got that figure up to at least 90% today. Phew.)

Patch was wounded a month later and shipped back to Blighty, where he proceeded become a plumber and live a “rich and varied life” that included “two marriages, two sons and stints as fireman in Bath during the Blitz and working with GIs during the build-up to the Normandy landings”. But despite his distinguished status as the last Tommy, Patch refuses to glorify the war in which he fought:

Harry Patch never wanted to go to war and never saw it — as Sidney Rogerson or Ernst Jünger did — as his making. ‘It’s a waste of time,’ he says, 90 years after seeing some of its worst at Passchendaele. ‘Each war is conducted by people sitting in a comfortable office and not the ones stuck in the bloody trench.’

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2 Responses to The last Tommy

  1. Theresa K. says:

    Fascinating. Glad his thoughts are public record. It seems today that war has really been glorified. Your post reminds me of an interview clip going around on the radio circuit this morning featuring Dick Cheney in 1994 reflecting on the first gulf war. At that point, he seemed to be of similar mind with Harry Patch regarding the cost of war (in lives). Sorry, it’s a YouTube video:

  2. The Scylding says:

    That last quotation is really something. Would that those sitting comfortably in offices experience the hell of war, even for just one day.

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