Passchendaele survivor says Ive never got over it -update

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#1
As the Queen marks the 90th anniversary of Passchendaele, the last survivor talks to Neil Tweedie about the trenches

The friends and relatives of Harry Patch provided three cakes for his birthday last month, but there was - wisely, given his slight shortness of breath - no attempt to top them with a full complement of candles.

Henry John Patch would be notable simply by virtue of his 109 years on earth. When he was born, on June 17, 1898, the Marquess of Salisbury was Prime Minister and Queen Victoria had two and a half years still to reign. Kitchener was 11 weeks away from fighting the Battle of Omdurman and the outbreak of the Boer War lay 16 months into the future. H G Wells's latest work, The War of the Worlds, had just been published in book form following its successful serialisation in Pearson's Magazine.

But Harry Patch is more than a gerontological phenomenon. The man arranging his medals and sitting up straight for a photograph in the conservatory of a nursing home in Wells is the last British man alive to have served in the trenches during the First World War. The last survivor of Passchendaele, that three-month orgy of blood-letting in the mud of Flanders which began 90 years ago this month and commemorated by the Queen at Tyne Cot cemetery in Belgium today. The last Tommy of the Great War.

When he is gone, the British experience of daily life on the Western Front will be no man's land. No living man's land.

There are two other men alive who served between 1914 and 1918, but neither experienced the living nightmare of the front line. Henry Allingham, born two years earlier than Mr Patch, served in France with the Royal Naval Air Service and occasionally visited the front to recover downed aircraft, while Bill Stone was called up for the Royal Navy only two months before the Armistice and did not see action.

Mr Patch takes no pride in being the last of the millions who fought and died amid unmitigated horror. His improbable status sometimes overwhelms him, reducing him to silent contemplation.

"The poor bloody infantry. Dead right. That's what we were. For 1/6d a day."

His speech is slow and deliberate; gentle, rusty Somerset. Kaiser is pronounced "Kay-zer", with a long "z".

That he is sitting here, listening to children in a nearby playground, is a testament to life's caprice. He should have died 90 years ago, on a black night in September 1917, with his mates. It would have been an unremarkable death: one more shredded body to add to three others.

He was part of a Lewis Gun team in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, a close-knit family drawn closer together by the knowledge that machine-gunners, by virtue of the mayhem they wrought among advancing infantry, were likely to receive no mercy if over-run.

That night, his battalion had been pulled out of the line and was moving to the rear over open ground when a German shell, a "whizz-bang", exploded. The young Private Patch was wounded in the groin by a shell splinter. One other member of the five-strong team survived. The others were blown to pieces.

"It killed Number Three - he came from Truro - and Number Four and Number Five. Jack and Jill we called those two. They came from Falmouth. Number Three was known as Maudy. There was an actress of that name. He had a good sense of humour."

Were they good friends? "All of us."

Did they look after each other? "Always."

The British Empire suffered 500,000 dead and wounded during the three months of Third Ypres, as Passchendaele is more properly known. The offensive was the brainchild of the British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, and didn't take long to bog down in the morass created by incessant artillery bombardment and constant rain. Casualties mounted.

Between the start of the campaign on July 31 and its end on November 8, an average of 5,000 men a day were killed or wounded, and all for the capture of a few miles of desecrated land.

Harry Patch grew up in Coombe Down, near Bath. He left school at 15 and trained as a plumber. He was 16 when war broke out and reached 18 just as conscription was being introduced. Unlike many of the young men who smilingly signed up for death and dismemberment, he had no illusions.

"I knew what to expect. My mother had three sons. My oldest brother suffered from asthma. He didn't pass. My middle brother was a regular soldier. Royal Engineers. Serving in Africa. He was called home and wounded at Mons. I knew what it was going to be like: dirty, filthy, insanitary."

It met his expectations. There were the lice that clung to the body and the rats that gnawed fearlessly at bootlaces. And the mud. Thick brown liquid quite capable of drowning a man. The shell burst that killed his friends ended Mr Patch's three or so months in the front line.

"I can remember the shell bursting. I saw the flash, I must have passed out. The next thing I could remember was the dressing station. A wound in my groin. The nurse painted something around it to stop the lice getting at it. I was given a good hot bath. The lice came off - you could pick them up with a shovel - bloody things."

There was a shortage of anaesthetic and he had to be held down as the shell splinter was removed. The medical officer asked him if wanted to keep it as a souvenir. Mr Patch told him what he could do with it. "The fella in the next bed said to me, 'If he writes anything in that book, you're for Blighty.' Well, he did write in the book. I didn't believe it until someone came in and called my name and number. I went to Rouen."

During his recovery in Britain, he met his first wife. "Knocked her down. She was coming down some steps from the cinema and I was running for the bus and knocked her down. Picked her up, dusted her off and it started from that." They were married for 56 years and had two sons, both of whom have since died.

Mr Patch has few mementos from the war. He was too old to fight in the Second World War and worked as a sanitary engineer in American army camps in the south-west. He retired in 1963. Following his first wife's death in 1976, he married again at the age of 81. His second wife died five years ago.

His membership of that steadily diminishing band of British veterans of the war to end all wars has earned him audiences with the Queen and the French Légion d'honneur. A few years ago he was taken to meet a German veteran who had fought opposite him in Flanders. "Nice old chap. A pacifist. Same as me. Why did they suffer, those millions of men?"

The afternoon is wearing on and Mr Patch is tired. He pauses to listen to the children playing. What does it feel like to be the last of those millions, that army of ghosts?

"I don't like it," he says and then adds: "I sit there and think. And some nights I dream - of that first battle. I can't forget it.

"I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: 'Mother'. I didn't see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God's presence.

"I've never got over it. You never forget it. Never."
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/portal/m...xml=/portal/2007/07/12/nosplit/ftharry112.xml

I salute you sir.

Edit to add link to Queens visit to Tyne Cott:
http://www.arrse.co.uk/cpgn2/Forums/viewtopic/t=72225.html
 
#2
Agreed oldbaldy. Harry Patch is a remarkable man. We should remember him and ever other soldier, sailor and airman from WW1. We should never forget the hell they endured especially in France and Flanders.
'At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.'
All.
 
#3
We WILL remember them.
 
#4
If you can visit London, the CWGC exhibition of war memorial photographs is at Canada House on Trafalgar Square. The photographs were taken for a book that commemorates the 90th anniversary of the formation of the CWGC.

CWGC

The exhibition was due to finish this week, but has been extended until 31 Aug.

Canada House

Very moving.

A lot of dust around Trafalgar Square at the moment....

Litotes
 
#5
Why has MR Patch not been given a knighthood or an MBE or some such award as recognition for his service and those of his Generation. Would David Beckham get one if he served in Iraq for instance. My G Grandfather was at Paschaendale He diied aged 96 he left his best mate on the Somme, he never got over it either.

God bless them all.
RCGJ
 

engr172

Old-Salt
Book Reviewer
#6
I salute you Mr Patch
 
#7
Litotes said:
If you can visit London, the CWGC exhibition of war memorial photographs is at Canada House on Trafalgar Square. The photographs were taken for a book that commemorates the 90th anniversary of the formation of the CWGC.

CWGC

The exhibition was due to finish this week, but has been extended until 31 Aug.

Canada House

Very moving.

A lot of dust around Trafalgar Square at the moment....

Litotes
Yep,

Some of it has just blown through my office window...

Bugger.

Such vivid recollection, but not surprising, given what he went through.

A salute from me too.
 
#8
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
Why has MR Patch not been given a knighthood or an MBE or some such award as recognition for his service and those of his Generation...
You may find he would be uncomfortable in accepting such an individual accolade; I recall some of his generation recording in books and TV documentaries that they are just glad to have gone on to live a full life when so many of their comrades didn't have the opportunity. Recognition for them all is utterly essential though, each and every one of us has the moral duty to never forget.


RedcoatGreenjacket said:
... God bless them all.
Amen.
 

Grownup_Rafbrat

LE
Book Reviewer
#9
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
Why has MR Patch not been given a knighthood or an MBE or some such award as recognition for his service and those of his Generation. Would David Beckham get one if he served in Iraq for instance. My G Grandfather was at Paschaendale He diied aged 96 he left his best mate on the Somme, he never got over it either.

God bless them all.
RCGJ
My grandfather left an eye there. The only thing he ever said about it was that he was lucky that was all he left behind.

Still managed to serve as a fire warden at a local airfield in the second conflict though!
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#10
[align=center]Memorial Tablet


Squire nagged and bullied till I went to fight,
(Under Lord Derby's scheme). I died in hell -

(They called it Passchendaele). My wound was slight,
And I was hobbling back; and then a shell
Burst slick upon the duckboards: so I fell
Into the bottomless mud, and lost the light

At sermon-time, while Squire is in his pew,
He gives my gilded name a thoughtful stare;
For, though low down upon the list, I'm there;
"In proud and glorious memory" ... that's my due.
Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he's never guessed.
I came home on leave: and then went west...
What greater glory could a man desire?

- Siegfried Sassoon 1918[/align]
 
#12
Once more in tears about the millions of wasted and damaged lives...

[align=center]The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England's, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
[/align]
[align=center]~ Rupert Brooke [/align]

For Great-Great-Uncle James and all the others who never made it back...


RedcoatGreenjacket said:
God bless them all.
Amen.
 
#13
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
God bless them all.

I often think of them sitting up on a cloud, looking down at this country as it is now, shaking their heads and saying 'we lived like that, suffered like that and died like that, so they could do THIS to our country'.

They gave everything to give us a future, and what have we done with it?
 
#14
Grownup_Rafbrat said:
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
God bless them all.

I often think of them sitting up on a cloud, looking down at this country as it is now, shaking their heads and saying 'we lived like that, suffered like that and died like that, so they could do THIS to our country'.

They gave everything to give us a future, and what have we done with it?



Couldnt agree more, poor sods must be thinking that, they are only a few generations away from us aswell.

Im proud of the boys that do the job in the army, boys of 18 are still prepared to go to danger zones and do what they are paid to do.

Apart from that, i cant really say Im proud to be British anymore. How can I be, weve been raped up the arrse by a goverment that doesnt actually care about anyone but themselves.
 
#15
armies said:
Grownup_Rafbrat said:
[I often think of them sitting up on a cloud, looking down at this country as it is now, shaking their heads and saying 'we lived like that, suffered like that and died like that, so they could do THIS to our country'.

They gave everything to give us a future, and what have we done with it?



Couldnt agree more, poor sods must be thinking that, they are only a few generations away from us aswell.

Im proud of the boys that do the job in the army, boys of 18 are still prepared to go to danger zones and do what they are paid to do.

Apart from that, i cant really say Im proud to be British anymore. How can I be, weve been raped up the arrse by a goverment that doesnt actually care about anyone but themselves.
In my case it's only two generations - paternal grandfather and maternal great uncle were in that war. Maternal grandfather missed it by two years.

Have to agree with your other sentiments, except I think Governments have been behaving badly for at many years, but the destruction of our country has been accelerated over the last 25 years.

Politicians of all colours are greedy b@stards who will do anything for the person who gives them the most money, regardless of the longterm effect of their laws. And most of them are too stupid to realise that effects have causes, and they might be creating effects that last more than the time it takes to spend their next paycheque / bribe.
 
#16
armies said:
Grownup_Rafbrat said:
RedcoatGreenjacket said:
God bless them all.

I often think of them sitting up on a cloud, looking down at this country as it is now, shaking their heads and saying 'we lived like that, suffered like that and died like that, so they could do THIS to our country'.

They gave everything to give us a future, and what have we done with it?



Couldnt agree more, poor sods must be thinking that, they are only a few generations away from us aswell.

Im proud of the boys that do the job in the army, boys of 18 are still prepared to go to danger zones and do what they are paid to do.

Apart from that, i cant really say Im proud to be British anymore. How can I be, weve been raped up the arrse by a goverment that doesnt actually care about anyone but themselves.
Quite right - I'm amazed that anyone listened to Haig when he decided the Germans were too good to beat under normal military conditions, and only a war of attrition would succeed against them. I went to Ypres in 1967 for the 50th anniversary of Passchendaele. We lads from 1 PWO were billeted with a party from the Cheshires - great blokes, we got on like a house on fire. The locals earned my admiration for their gracious toleration of our drunken excesses. But on the day - sober, military and professional - we paid our respects to the fallen without a trace of the cynicism found in teens & twenty-somethings in Civ Div. After the parade, we took time to wander through the acres of crosses. The number of East Yorks badges on the markers was overwhelming. (This was my father's old regiment.)The Cheshire lads also came away with a lot to think about. I doubt that such intimacy with tragedy and tradition, ever occurs to young people in civilian jobs. Young Brits doing the job in Iraq & 'Stan today, deserve the wholehearted support of their government and people. It's a disgrace that they're not getting such support.

Cheers,
Cliff.
 
#18
Having read some of Mr Patch's stories in Forgotten Voices of WW1 and listened to him on the TV programme i salute you Mr Patch and everyone else who was in that Horrendous war.
They all have my absolute respect.
 
#19
The subject pretty much renders me speechless; I've visited the ossuary at Verdun, and another that sits quietly by the roadside in Champage. It's not a lot to ask people to keep silence once a year, and to go to Whitehall if they're in or near London.

And not to forget, never to forget.

I'll go to the CWGC thing, thanks Litotes.
 

oldbaldy

LE
Moderator
#20
Another piece about Harry:
http://www.mailonsunday.co.uk/pages...rticle_id=471468&in_page_id=1770&in_a_source=

You have to strain to hear Harry Patch. At 109 years old, the last surviving Tommy from the horrors of the trenches in the First World War is growing increasingly frail.

But his mind is every bit as sharp today as it was 90 years ago this week when, as a 19-year-old conscript, he was ordered over the top at the Third Battle of Ypres.

The battle, better known simply as Passchendaele, has become a byword for senseless slaughter.

More than half a million men were killed or injured during five months of fighting over a few miles of quagmire.

The British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, had launched his "Flanders Offensive" to relieve exhausted French troops in the south and stop the Germans deploying U-Boats from the Belgian ports.

But the objective soon shrank to the pointless task of taking the ruined Belgian village of Passchendaele.

With the help of The Mail on Sunday, Harry Patch returned for the first time to the spot where his unit waited with increasing anxiety, before being ordered to advance out of the comparative safety of the trenches, across a stream called the Steenbeek and into No Man's Land.

How Passchendaele looked in 1917. The massive Allied bombardment had turned the fields around Passchendaele into a quagmire that seriously hampered the Flanders Offensive

He came to pay a deeply personal farewell to his three closest comrades – killed by a German shell – and to bear witness to the horrors of trench warfare for one last time.

It was impossible not to be moved as Harry surveyed the landscape from his wheelchair, his eyes misting over at the painful memories of 1917.

Even though the land that was once part of the British front line is now the corner of a farmer's field with the rebuilt Langemarck church in the background, Harry recognised it immediately.

"Yes, this is where it happened," he said. "I can see it in my mind's eye. I remember the cacophony of noise, so loud you couldn't hear the man next to you speaking.

"Shells were whizzing over us towards the German lines just 750 yards away, and their machine-gun bullets were coming in the opposite direction. But what I remember most was the waiting, the anxiety, the fear.

"I have a memory of crossing that stream. It was flooded, with the trees on either side smashed to pieces. We crossed on pontoons because the bridge had been blown up.

"On the far side of the stream we stopped to await the order to advance. The bombardment to cover us took your breath away. The noise was ferocious. There was apprehension in everyone's eyes and horror in a few."

Endless torrential rain and an Allied barrage of more than four million shells that preceded the initial assault on July 31, 1917, turned the battlefield into a quagmire that would bog down the offensive.

Before Allied forces finally captured the town in November 1917, many soldiers were sucked under and drowned, and guns, tanks and horses also sank in the mud.

On the morning of August 16, Harry's battalion of the 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry was given the task of launching an assault on the village of Langemarck.

"The ground we had to cover was just shell holes," Harry recalled.

"There were bodies, both our own and German, from the first wave. It was sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some crying for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and others beyond all hope.

"There were men who had been ripped to pieces – it wasn't just a case of seeing them with a neat bullet-hole in their tunic. Lots of people were crying for help but you couldn't stop.

"It was hellish," he adds in his slight Somerset burr.

"Just one long nightmare from the thunder of the guns as the battle began to the sound of the wounded crying out. You could do nothing to help them. You just had to go forward through all that mud and blood. It was absolutely sickening.

"I remember one lad from our regiment in particular – the memory has haunted me all my life. He was in a pool of blood, ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel.

When we got to him he said, 'Shoot me.' But before we could draw a revolver, he was dead.

"And the final word he uttered was 'Mother'. It wasn't a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy. I think – no, I'm sure – that his mother was in the next world to welcome him and he knew it.

"I've always remembered that cry and that death is not the end – at least I hope that's how it was with my three mates."

Harry, who had been an apprentice plumber in Bath before conscription, was sent to the front line around his 19th birthday in June 1917.

He said: "I didn't want to be there and I never pretended I did. I was conscripted in 1916, by which time the enthusiasm for the war had waned at home.

"I was nervous but I didn't want to reveal my feelings to the others.

"It doesn't matter how much training you've had, you can't prepare for the reality – the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties. The conditions were awful while we were waiting for the offensive.

"It rained and rained. Water flowed along the bottom of the trench. I'd stand on an ammunition box until it sank into the mud, then put another on top and stand on that.

"There was no sanitation and the place stank. You were filthy. From landing in France in June until coming out in September, I never had a bath nor clean clothes.

"I was put in a Lewis gun team with three others. We became very close – it sounds strange, but we had a pact that we wouldn't kill anyone, not if we could help it.

"We'd fire short, hit them in the legs or fire over their heads, but not kill unless it was them or us."

On the day they went over the top, Harry's team were instructed to provide covering fire for their comrades, who overran the enemy trenches and became involved in hand-to-hand fighting.

"We lay down for cover behind a dead German. I had just changed a magazine when one of them came out of the trench and came straight for us with fixed bayonet.

"He couldn't have had any ammunition, otherwise he would have shot us. I drew my revolver and shot him in the right shoulder.

"He dropped his rifle but still came stumbling on. He called out something to me in German – I don't suppose it was complimentary. I had three live rounds left in that revolver and could have killed him with the first.

"He was only 15 yards away and I couldn't miss, not with a Webley service revolver, not at that range.

"I thought, 'What shall I do?' I had four seconds to make up my mind, and I gave him his life.

"I shot him above the ankle and above the knee and brought him down. He would have been passed back to a PoW camp and rejoined his family after the war.

"I've often wondered whether he realised I gave him his life. Six weeks later, my three best mates were killed by a German bomb. If that had happened before I met that German, I would have damn well killed him."

The assault by Harry's men was over by mid-morning and the survivors waited all afternoon for a counter-attack that never came.

"We were sitting amid a sea of shell holes, up to our knees in gluey, sticky mud. The stench of rotting bodies was terrible. Right across the battlefield, the bodies of the dead and of the wounded would sink out of sight.'

Harry is one of only a handful of First World War veterans still alive. Bill Stone, 106, served in the Navy and was not involved in combat, while Henry Allingham, 111, was a mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service.

William Young, a former radio operator in the Royal Flying Corps, died last week aged 107.

For his trip back to Flanders, Harry was accompanied by his friend, historian Richard van Emden, his co-author on The Last Fighting Tommy.

Richard scoured maps and photographs taken at the time to pinpoint Harry's battle position.

Staring out across the fields, Harry said: "This was all mud, mud and more mud, mixed together with blood.

"We fought for a few yards of soil and that cost the lives of so many, including my three best friends. There was no excuse for such slaughter for so little gain."

He returned to England six weeks after that first assault. The German shell that killed his three best friends had also left Harry with horrific shrapnel wounds that were later operated on without anaesthetic.

When he lies in bed at his care home in Wells, Somerset, a flash of light outside his room can put him straight back to the horrors of Passchendaele.

"Anyone who tells you they weren't scared is a damned liar. You were scared all the time," he said.

"We lived hour by hour. You saw the sun rise, hopefully you'd see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped you'd see it rise. Some men would, some wouldn't."

After the war Harry went back to plumbing in Somerset and outlived two wives and two sons.

He said: "I went 80 years and never mentioned the war, not even to my family. The memories were too vivid. I bottled it all up for so long. I never even watched a war film.

"But the war is something I can now talk about. In 2004 I went back to Flanders for a memorial service and met a German, Charles Kuentz, who had fought against us.

"We shook hands and agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don't know.

"He told me, 'I fought you because I was told to, and you did the same.' It's sad but true.

"What the hell we fought for, I now don't know."

The Last Fighting Tommy, by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden, published Monday July 30 by Bloomsbury, priced £16.99.

Might just buy that one.
 

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