Thursday, July 30, 2009

Last man from the trenches

A little late, but worth noting:
Harry Patch, Britain's last survivor of the trenches of World War I, was a reluctant soldier who became a powerful eyewitness to the horror of war, and a symbol of a lost generation.

Patch, who died Saturday at 111, was wounded in 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele, which he remembered as "mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood."

"Anyone who tells you that in the trenches they weren't scared, he's a damned liar: you were scared all the time," Patch was quoted as saying in a book, "The Last Fighting Tommy," written with historian Richard van Emden.
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Patch was one of the last living links to "the war to end all wars," which killed about 20 million people in years of fighting between the Allied Powers — including Britain, France and the United States — and Germany and its allies. The Ministry of Defense said he was the last soldier of any nationality to have fought in the brutal trench warfare that has become the enduring image of the conflict.

There are no French or German veterans of the war left alive. The last known U.S. veteran is Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, 108, who drove ambulances in France for the U.S. Army.

Patch did not speak about his war experiences until he was 100. Once he did, he was adamant that the slaughter he witnessed had not been justified.

"I met someone from the German side and we both shared the same opinion: we fought, we finished and we were friends," he said in 2007.

"It wasn't worth it."
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Patch's war had ended on Sept. 22, when he was seriously wounded by shrapnel, which killed three other members of his machine gun team.

"My reaction was terrible; it was losing a part of my life," he said.

"I'd taken an absolute liking to the men in the team, you could say almost love. You could talk to them about anything and everything. I mean, those boys were with you night and day, you shared everything with them and you talked about everything."

Ever after, he regarded that date as his Remembrance Day instead of the national commemoration on Nov. 11.

He and the other survivor agreed that they would never share details of the incident with the families of their comrades. "I mean, there was nothing left, nothing left to bury, and I don't think they would have wanted to know that," he said.

Patch recalled being unmoved by the excitement that swept his village of Combe Down, near Bath in southwestern England, when war broke out in 1914.

"I didn't welcome the war at all, and never felt the need to get myself into khaki and go out there fighting before it was 'all over by Christmas.' That's what people were saying, that the war wouldn't last long," he said.

His most vivid memory of the war was of encountering a comrade whose torso had been ripped open by shrapnel. "Shoot me," Patch recalled the soldier pleading.

The man died before Patch could draw his revolver.

"I was with him for the last 60 seconds of his life. He gasped one word — 'Mother.' That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it."

When he was wounded, Patch said he was told that the medics had run out of anesthetic, but he agreed to go ahead with surgery to remove shrapnel from his stomach.

"Four people caught hold of me, one each leg, one each arm, and the doctor got busy," he recalled. "I'd asked him how long he'd be and he'd said, 'two minutes,' and in those two minutes I could have damned well killed him."

After the war ended in 1918, Patch returned to work as a plumber, got married, raised a family and didn't start talking about his war experiences until the 21st century. He outlived three wives and both of his sons.
I've always found World War 1 fascinating. It was essentially the first "modern" war, very gruesome and horrific. It was so appalling to the world that people claimed it would be the last war, which obviously it was not. Trench warfare may remain the most nightmarish remnant of the war.


Jai said...

He sounded like a sensible man. I'm glad he got to stick around for eleventy-one years.

One wonders where this war business will end up, eventually. I'm sure I'll never know. Ah, well -- time makes casualties of us all.

Jai said...

No, wait, it was "War makes fools of us all".