Britain honors last WWI veteran

The coffin draped in a Union Jack flag is taken away from Well Cathedral.
The last British soldier to serve in World War I was buried Thursday, marking "the passing of a generation," the British veterans minister said.

Harry Patch died July 25 at the age of 111, a week after fellow British World War I veteran Henry Allingham died at the age of 113. A party of pallbearers escorting his coffin was made up of two Belgian, two French, and two German infantrymen, while his coffin was carried by six soldiers from a unit that incorporated the one he served in during World War I. Patch was buried in the cathedral in the city of Wells, southwest England, where he lived. He joined the army at the age of 18 and fought in the Battle of Passchendaele at Ypres, Belgium, in 1917. He was seriously wounded in the battle, in which more than 70,000 of his fellow soldiers died — including three of his close friends. “Today marks the passing of a generation, and of a man who dedicated his final years to spreading the message of peace and reconciliation,” Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said. “Active participation in the Great War is now no longer part of living memory in this country, but Harry Patch will continue to be a symbol of the bravery and sacrifice shown by him and those he served with,” he said. “In his passing we have lost our last living link to the fighting in the trenches of the Western Front and a member of a generation that stood firm in the face of extraordinary adversity and unimaginable suffering,” said Gen. Richard Dannatt, the head of the British army.

Don’t Miss
Harry Patch dead at 111

“But today above all else we give thanks for the life of a brave and inspirational man whose message of reconciliation and peace has reached and touched so many,” he said. The funeral was attended by the acting head of the British government and the wife of Prince Charles, among thousands of others, the Ministry of Defence said. Patch was the last British man living in the United Kingdom to have served in the trenches on the Western Front, the Ministry of Defence said. Born in 1898, Patch became a plumber before being conscripted to the army in 1916. His unit, The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was rushed to the front-line trenches of Ypres, where soldiers were urgently needed to replace those who were wounded and dying by the thousands. He fought in the trenches between June and September of 1917 and was involved in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. In late September he was wounded when a light shell exploded above his head, bringing an end to his military service. He received battlefield treatment without anesthetic. After the war ended in 1918, Patch returned to his work as a plumber and later became a sanitary engineer. He married Ada Billington, a young woman he met while convalescing after the battle. They married in 1919 and had two sons. In World War II, Patch joined the Auxiliary Fire Service and helped tackle the fires caused by heavy German raids on the English cities of Bath and Bristol. At one point he was sent to organize sanitary arrangements for soldiers at a camp near Yeovil, in southwest England, where he became friendly with some of the men. Patch remembered the shock of finding the camp deserted, with coffee still hot and meals half-eaten, on the morning that the soldiers had gone off for the invasion of France, the Ministry of Defence said. His wife, Ada, died in 1976, and their two sons also later died. Patch remarried in 1980, but he became a widower for the second time four years later. Patch didn’t speak about the war until he turned 100, the Ministry of Defence said. “He tried to suppress the memories and to live as normal a life as possible; the culture of his time said that he was fortunate to have survived and that he should get on with his life,” a Ministry of Defence biography says. “That suited Harry; he could ‘forget’ his demons, the memories of what happened to him and to his close friends.” In 1998, a television producer with an interest in the war talked to Patch, who then made the decision to speak of his memories, the ministry said. He took part in a documentary on the war and began gradually to open up. It wasn’t long before Patch became a spokesman for his generation, speaking about the horrors of the war as well as his own emotions and reactions, the ministry said. “In speaking about his experiences, Harry began at last to come to terms with his war, and was at peace with himself and his memories,” the ministry said. “His thoughts then turned to reconciliation, to the long-term effects of suffering and coming to terms with that suffering.” Patch returned to Belgium in 2002, something he had said he would never do, and laid a wreath in honor of his battalion, the Defence Ministry said. Two years later, he met and shook hands with a German artilleryman from the Western Front, Charles Kuentz. Patch later laid a wreath at Langemark Cemetery for the German war dead. In his last years, Patch was honored at Buckingham Palace and the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street. On his 101st birthday France awarded him the Knighthood of the Legion of Honor, and this year President Nicolas Sarkozy upgraded that to the rank of officer. Last year, King Albert II of Belgium made Patch a Knight of the Order of Leopold. “Harry was delighted to receive these awards and wore the medals with great pride, but he always made it clear that he wore these medals as a representative of the selfless generation he had come to represent,” the Ministry of Defence said.

In 2007, Patch wrote a book detailing his life, called “The Last Fighting Tommy.” The name referred to the slang term for British privates. “While the country may remember Harry as a soldier, we will remember him as a dear friend,” said Jim Ross, a close friend. “He was a man of peace who used his great age and fame as the last survivor of the trenches to communicate two simple messages: Remember with gratitude and respect those who served on all sides, (and) settle disputes by discussion, not war.”