The Last Survivor

Harry Patch Memorial, Wells

6th August 2009

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral

Harry Patch procession to Wells Cathedral - captured by various media!

On Thursday I went down to Wells with my friend (and former bardic student) Matt, aka ‘Wayland’, to pay our respects to Harry Patch, the last veteran of the First World War trenches, born in Combe Down, Bath, who died on the 25th July at the incredible and symbolically apt age of 111 – a numeric echo of the Armistice Day, signed 11am on the 11th November 1918. To the end Harry’s message was peace and reconciliation (‘”Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”.) – and to me, this makes him a hero – not the fact he got caught up in the ‘War to End All Wars’, like so many young men of his generation. He was the quintessential accidental hero, and the fact he was ‘an ordinary man’ was emphasized again and again at the moving service at Wells Cathedral, witnessed by a 1400 inside, many outside on the green in the rain (including us,  happy to be ‘with the people’) and countless others around the world via TV and internet.

the ginger hulk outside Wells Cathedral

The Ginger Hulk outside Wells Cathedral

Matt had called me, expressing an interest to attend Harry’s memorial (which was going to be a full state funeral, until he and fellow veteran Henry Allingham quashed that notion). I researched the details and applied for tickets. Matt is partially sighted and would have struggled to get to Wells as there was no direct rail link – it required a long and winding 80 minute bus journey from Bath over the Mendips. To his credit he made it to Bath Spa and booked himself into the White Hart hostel. I met him the next day and we caught the bus from Bath’s new terminal (the ‘transport hub’ resembling a some kind of kitchen appliance). Matt’s balance is poor, because of a hearing impairment (which seems to be selective – the trigger word being ‘chocolate’ or ‘cheese pasty’) and so taking him pillion on my bike wasn’t an option – and so we were ‘Bards on a Bus’ for the day! Oh, the joys of public transport…

We sat at the back at Matt’s insistence and began gabbling away when we were soon interrupted by a man who turned out to be a journalist from the LA Times, no less, who was on his way down to Wells to cover the memorial. We ended up chatting to Henry Chu for a good half an hour and he asked us why we, a 39 and 33 yr old, were going to a funeral of someone we had never met, from a generation thrice removed.

It was a good question.

Matt seems obsessed about military history from certain periods – and he discovered recently he had a relative who served in the First World War, surname Shoesmith, and so he had a personal connection.

I’ve felt connected to the First World War since learning some of the haunting poetry from that period at school – heart-breaking windows into misery that brought it home to me more than forgotten history lessons – in the early Eighties, when Britain was fighting another futile war, this time in the Falklands (the tabloids fuelling a sickening ‘bulldog’ spirit, which went on to help the Tories get re-elected at a time when they were struggling – one could all see it as cynical manipulation of the populace. When things are difficult on the domestic front conjure up ‘the New Bad’ to distract and terrorise… plus ca change) and the constant shadow of the Cold War made the prospect of being forced into some nightmare conflict very real. The thought of conscription seemed very real at the time – being forced as cannon fodder to the front. The poets of the First World War expressed the futility, the waste, the chaos, the tragedy, the ugly face of conflict, the fact that War is Terror – there is nothing noble about it and violence is never justified, never the solution – as Patch epitomised: what is poignant about him is not the fact that he took part, but that he survived and had to live 91 years with the aftermath. That it took him 80 years to talk about it. That he could vividly recall the horror of war all that time later – the death of his comrades in one devastating blast. One act of violence – nearly a century to ‘recover’. The sound of gunfire and bombs may fade, but the impact lasts for generations. This is the terrible price normal people have to pay. War is a crime against humanity. It is obscene and all those advocate it are war criminals. Patch summed up the aftermath of war to me – of those who have to pick up the pieces and carry on. Trying to imagine what it must have been like, to be the one who survives – the one who outlives all of his comrades and most of his loved ones…the nearest I can come to comprehending it is mythopoeically – a word coined by another First World War veteran we may have easily lost, JRR Tolkien – through the legend of Oisin, who returns to Ireland 300 years later to discover all that he has known and loved has turned to dust. He shares his story with St Patrick, (as Patch did with Richard Van Emden, co-author of The Last Fighting Tommy) before finally expiring, a super-annuated soul out of his time, a living ghost left behind.

I also felt the need to honour Harry because I had recently finished my five book paean to the lost of history, The Windsmith Elegy  within a few days of both Harry and Henry Allingham dying (who briefly crops up in the second volume). It begins on the eve of the First World War and ends on the eve of the Second, linking these two major conflicts which have shaped the world we live in – and charting the ‘space between’, the Twenties and Thirties. Having spent half a million words exploring these issues, imagining the impact of these events on ordinary lives, yes, I felt connected. I felt. like I had gone on a journey and this marked the end of it

I wanted to honour this last living link, not just for the brief time he endured in that awful conflict, but the achievement of his long life, to way he kept on going. That is perhaps the hardest thing of all.

The service was a well-managed and moving combination of tributes from various people – the most eloquent was the rendition of Seager’s classic anti-war song ‘Where have all the flowers gone’ and the anecdotes about Harry the ‘ordinary man’ by the Scottish chap. Being unable to get hold of a copy of the Order of Service, we were left none the wiser as to who was speaking – although I did recognise the local Dean. Services Minister Kevan Jones observation that the day was also the anniversary of the dropping of the first bomb of Hiroshima was very poignant, as were his comments about the horror of war. I’m glad they didn’t turn it into some military trumpet-blowing exercise – although the playing of the ‘Last Post’ at the end was very moving in an iconic way. The fact that soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany helped carry the Union Jack covered coffin was a brilliant gesture of reconciliation. The crowd outside the cathedral consisted of a wide cross-section of ages and backgrounds – seeing teenagers and kids there, being respectful, showed how much Harry meant to the nation. As the hearse passed, the crowds lining the street burst spontaneously into applause.

Afterward the service, we took cover from the deluge in the Cornish Pasty shop – our stomaches offering no resistance – before we searched for a portrait of Patch rumoured to be on display in the town – we discovered it in the town hall, displayed in a stairwell – it was rather poignant to see it there, hanging quietly on the wall after all the pomp and ceremony. Depicted in a rather pop art style, with bits of glittery bling attached, the old tommy had become an icon.

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Harry Patch portrait, Wells town hall

Matt signs book of condolence

Matt signs book of condolence

We signed the Book of Condolence and then left, catching the bus back to Bath. Later on I discovered the journalist’s article on the LA Times website – he had posted a dispatch with alacrity. And there we were – cited as ‘Copley and Manwaring’ as though I’m Matt’s sidekick rather than the other way round! Still, it was a nice footnote to the day. Matt got quoted directly and my comments about the poetry and the breakdown of class divisions seemed to be included in Henry’s good account of the day. The perspective of outsiders is always fascinating, although his conclusion that as a nation we don’t seem to be willing to forget is perhaps misjudged – I doubt anyone wishes to cling to such a painful past, but we should not forgot if we don’t want to disrepect the sacrifice made by brave men and women  – and if we don’t want to make the same mistakes again. The fact that we seems to seems indicative of our collective amnesia. How can we let war happen again – indeed, even will it – after so many lives have been wasted by it, communities and countries devastated? If only the First World War had ended war.

Henry Chu’s article can be read here: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-britain-funeral7-2009aug07,0,995903.story

Sublime band Radiohead (who have a Bath connection through their illustrator, Stanley Donwood, a local character – author of  ‘Catacombs of Terror’, a prophetic ‘swine flu’ comedy – flesh-eating pigs running amok in tunnels beneath the city of Bath!) have released a single inspired by Harry, raising funds for the British Legion. It was recorded in Bath Abbey. You can download it via their website. http://www.radiohead.com/deadairspace/

Rest in Peace, Harry – with your mates and loved ones at last.

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