Last British Army WWI veteran dead at 111

Harry Patch, pictured here on November 11, 2008, at an Armistice Day commemoration ceremony in London.
Harry Patch — the last surviving British soldier from World War I — died Saturday at the age of 111, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said.

Patch died peacefully at his care home in the southwestern English city of Wells, the ministry announced. His death came a week after fellow British World War I veteran Henry Allingham died at the age of 113. Patch was the last surviving soldier to have witnessed the horrors of trench warfare in the first World War He fought and was seriously wounded in Ypres, Belgium, in 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele, in which 70,000 of his fellow soldiers died — including three of his close friends. Born in 1898, Patch became a plumber before being conscripted to the army in 1916. After training, Patch was recruited to The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry as a Lewis gunner assistant. The unit was rushed to the front line trenches of Ypres, where soldiers were urgently needed to replace those who were wounded and dying by the thousand. 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, Harry returned to his work as a plumber and later became a sanitary engineer. He married Ada Billington, a young girl 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, 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 to 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 of Defence 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 of Defence 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 Defence 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 to 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. Patch wrote a book detailing his life in 2007, 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.” Gen. Richard Dannatt, the chief of the general staff, issued a statement expressing his sadness about Patch’s death. “Self-effacing about his experiences in the trenches he was no less effective in describing the horror they represented when invited to speak to schoolchildren about the realities of war.” Dannatt said. “He was the last of a generation that in youth was steadfast in its duty in the face of cruel sacrifice and we give thanks for his life — as well as those of his comrades — for upholding the same values and freedom that we continue to cherish and fight for today.”