August 8th, 2009

Harry Patch

It's two days since they buried Harry Patch, the last British soldier of the First World War. Four years ago they (meaning Andrew Motion and others) were floating the idea of giving the last soldier- whoever he turned out to be- a state funeral. In the event, the character of Harry Patch- who was a pacifist and a despiser of  the top brass-  rather militated against it.  What he got was something betwixt and between- a service in Wells cathedral, with the Duchess of Cornwall in attendance, and a private commital for friends and family afterwards. Soldiers were present, but- on Patch's own instructions- stripped of even their ceremonial weapons.

According to an article I read the other day, super-centenarians- like Patch- are distinguished by one thing: they don't hold grudges. I don't know if this is really true, but wouldn't it be fine if it was? You want to live a very long time? Then put aside bitterness. Actually Patch was bitter- full of anger at a system that had put so many of his generation through hell- but it wsn't personal- not aimed at anyone in particular- and that, I think,  makes the difference.

I only knew Patch from what I saw of him on TV, but he seemed like a good man- not averagely good, but shiningly good. There was no side to him- no ego- and if he emerged into the limelight in his final years- after a century of keeping quiet- it was because he felt it was his duty to bear witness. The same goes for Henry Allingham- briefly the world's oldest man and also a veteran of the Great War, though not a front-line Tommy- who predeceased him by two weeks. I've no time for all the guff about the "greatest generation"- there's nothing particularly great about being caught up in a stupid, murderous war- but these two last representatives of it did their comrades proud- and will be remembered not only as symbolic figures, but with real admiration and affection.

The First World War cast a long, long shadow. I was born over 30 years after it ended but it shaped my consciousness profoundly. It's strange to think there's now nobody left who remembers the fighting on the Western Front.