Who was Harry Patch, you might ask. I did. And the answer is simple -- Henry John Patch was briefly the oldest man in Europe, but more fitting for this day, he was the last surviving combat soldier of World War I in any country. He fought on the Western Front and when he died, he was a month short of being 112 years old. He died on July 25, 2009.
Rick and I encountered his grave during a walk on our last day in the UK, when we stayed a Morgan's Forge. "Turn left and soon you will come to the grave of Harry Patch," said my friend Mark, from whom we rented the house during our visit. So, on a cool, crisp, sunny (mostly) day, Rick and I ventured toward Monkton Combe. Harry's grave was the only one in the small and interesting cemetery that had been remembered, with two bright wreaths of poppies. It was a fitting remembrance.
Imagine what this son of a stonemason saw in his lifetime. Born close to the turn of a century -- the last century -- he saw the advent of electricity, the automobile, passenger air travel, the internet, everyday appliances. And he saw war.
He was drafted into the British Army two years into World War I and had a bumpy time in his early years, becoming demoted after a fist fight with a fellow soldier. He arrived in France in 1917 and fought at the Battle of Passchendaele, where he was injured and returned to England. He wrote:
When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle—thousands and thousands of young lives were lost... We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"
Harry Patch received eight medals for his service and after decades of not speaking about the war later shared his story in British documentaries and the series World War I in Colour, which is seen periodically in the U.S. on the AHC channel. He became an advocate for preserving sacred battlefield land in France and recognized that life on both sides was lost and should be honored. During the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, he described war as the "calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings" and said that "war isn't worth one life. Two years before his death, he wrote his autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy.
Harry Patch's funeral was held at Wells Cathedral and he was buried at Monkton Combe, the small cemetery adjacent to St. Michael's Church.
It was called "The War to End All Wars." But we all know that didn't happen. It was, in fact, the effects of World War I on Germany the bred discontent and the rise of Adolf Hitler and the second World War. Harry Patch didn't serve there and no doubt he had deep feelings about the war from his personal experiences. In his later years he was an advocate of peace and involved with the British Poppy Appeal and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.
But perhaps his greatest legacy is that he told his story -- and like all stories of war, we must never forget its impact on those who served, those who were left behind and those who live free because of the actions of brave soldiers, decades, even centuries ago.
Here's to our grandfathers and great grandfathers who served in this war. And to those who have served in others since. (Much info for this post pulled from Wikipedia and other websites. We'll go back to Paris next post!)