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Tony Grist

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Harry Patch [Aug. 8th, 2009|12:29 pm]
Tony Grist
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.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2009-08-08 12:08 pm (UTC)
I've read three great books about the first world war - Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That, a scorching indictment of the Britain that raised him during the late Victorian / Edwardian era and eventually (in his eyes) rejected him and his love, Laura Riding and Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, where Brittain volunteered for active service as a VAD (nurse) in Britain and France and suffered the catastrophic loss of many men who were dear to her. The strangest thing is, it's Brittain I feel saddest for, even though Graves's ordeal must have been immense and horrific (though he describes it with blisteringly angry humour).

The third book is fiction: A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry. This novel follows the course of young, poor Dubliner Willie Dunne as he volunteers for war service (conscription was never enforced in Ireland due to rioting). It's a really powerful book.

I have enormous respect for Patch and Allingham. I was watching the documentary on Patch where Andrew Motion was interviewing him and Patch describes, in this hushed tone which would put the chills up your back, how he came across someone ripped apart from shoulder to waist by a shrapnel and begging to be shot. Patch didn't need to shoot him; he just held his hand and the man died in 30 seconds. Motion then turned this into a poem which I wasn't listening to closely but noticed that every line seemed to begin "which...who...which" etc etc which struck me as more of an Ode to Relative Pronouns and bad poetry. Harry Patch himself said it better.

But I got a biography of Keats by Andrew Motion, I couldn't finish it, and gave up. Plus I think I'm biased against Poet Laureates given that his predecessor was a rampant emotional abuser and all-round scumbag.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 12:51 pm (UTC)
I have mixed feelings about Motion.

1. I don't think he's anything more than an averagely competent writer.

But...

2. He worked very hard to make the role of poet laureate mean something.

I've dodged round his Harry Patch poem too. I don't see it needed to be written.

I've read Graves. For me the most moving artefact to come out of the Great War is the movie- All Quiet On The Western Front
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[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2009-08-08 12:57 pm (UTC)
yeah, good point, I've neglected the fact that d'Enemy have a point of view too. Inexcusable, given my personal history :)
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:23 pm (UTC)
And then there's Ford Madox Ford's huge tetralogy Parade's End- which deals both with life on the Western Front (Ford was a serving officer and got himself blown up) and the profound changes the War brought about in British society. A very great book.
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[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2009-08-08 01:25 pm (UTC)
wow, thank you. I will go check it out.
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2009-08-08 01:11 pm (UTC)
Two words about wars: Matthew Arnold
One more: Yeats
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:26 pm (UTC)
"And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night."

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[User Picture]From: ideealisme
2009-08-08 01:27 pm (UTC)
Yeats was rather mealy-mouthed about commemorating those fallen in the *actual* wars though - and in later life his refusal to intervene or comment on behalf of a German Jewish poet who ended up deported reflects appallingly on him.

So Yeats: fine words, not so fine character.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 03:01 pm (UTC)
I read a book once which examined Yeats' political affiliations towards the end of his life and concluded that although he wasn't exactly a fascist, he sailed extremely close to the wind.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2009-08-08 12:19 pm (UTC)
This isn't Patch related, but...

I just bought, at uncharacteristically great expense, a 32 volume Collected Works of Kipling set. In googling to make sure it was complete, or close to it, I discovered something I hadn't realized -- he did a two-volume history of his son Jack's regiment and otherwise was very involved in war memorials, probably out of a combination of grief and guilt. He had encouraged his underage son to volunteer, pulled strings even, and then his son was killed. This is of course more common knowledge since the biopic starring Harry Potter.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:06 pm (UTC)
Gorgeous! I wish I had the complete works. A test of the completeness of your collection is whether or not it contains the story "Proofs of Holy Writ" which was published in the Strand magazine just before Kipling's death.

Kipling too was a victim of the Great War. I've always thought the stories and poems he wrote about it are among his finest work.
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2009-08-08 02:29 pm (UTC)
I'll check. It does have _Something of Myself_, which was published posthumously.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 02:58 pm (UTC)
Something of Myself- marvellous book. An object lesson in writing autobiography whilst giving nothing away!
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[User Picture]From: lblanchard
2009-08-08 06:07 pm (UTC)
It's in the index, but the listing leads to a mention of it in _Something of Myself_. I assume this means the collection didn't gather up things that hadn't previously been gathered up into a volume.
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[User Picture]From: heleninwales
2009-08-08 12:25 pm (UTC)
I am so, so glad that Harry Patch's beliefs meant that we didn't have a big state funeral with accompanying to do. I don't think it would have been appropriate for many reasons. We never want to forget, but at the same time, these men did other things in their lives. Why were those few years so important out of all the other years that Harry Patch lived? It seems wrong somehow to just label him as a WWI tommy, as though being caught up in that nightmare and having the luck to survive was the only thing he ever did.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:08 pm (UTC)
I wholly agree.

From what I can gather, not having been there, the service at Wells hit most of the right notes.
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[User Picture]From: heatherp8
2009-08-08 12:53 pm (UTC)
it was because he felt it was his duty to bear witness.
there's nothing particularly great about being caught up in a stupid, murderous war


Amen!

Every time I watch a TV show now which portrays the soldiers "over there," it brings me to tears. I cannot begin to fathom how it must feel to be in the midst of that.
And these men are most definitely MORE than just soldiers.

Rest well, Harry.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:17 pm (UTC)
Every time I watch a TV show now which portrays the soldiers "over there," it brings me to tears.

Me too.
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From: wokenbyart
2009-08-08 01:15 pm (UTC)
I like to think of these people who've survived so much, not so much in terms of what they survived of war but what they would have experienced having lived so very long. I don't know much about Harry Patch, but had read a lot about Henry Allingham and remember something he said about a year before he died. Someone said, "how does it feel to be your age?" To which he replied, "same as any other age."

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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2009-08-08 01:19 pm (UTC)
Yes. My mother, who is in her late 80s, says she still feels like she's 21.
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