27 July 2009

RIP: Harry Patch

Henry John Patch
17 Jun 1898 – 25 Jul 2009

The last World War I veteran who actually fought in the trenches died Saturday, leaving only three remaining WWI vets: Claude Choules of England (Royal Navy)*, John Babcock of Canada (Canadian Expeditionary Force) and Frank Buckles of the United States (US Army).

ZUI this article from The Telegraph:
The son of a master stonemason, Henry John Patch was born at Combe Down, near Bath, on June 17, 1898, and educated at the local Church of England school. On leaving at 15 he was apprenticed to a plumber. One of his brothers, a sergeant-major in the Royal Engineers, had been wounded at Mons, so young Harry knew enough to have no wish to go when he was called up at 18.

Sent for six months to the 33rd Training Battalion near Warminster, Wiltshire, he learned to lock up his kit after his boots were stolen, and earned his crossed guns badge for marksmanship, which came with an extra 6d a day.

On landing in France in June 1917, Patch became a Lewis machine-gunner with C company of the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Rouen, and he was in the trenches on his 19th birthday. Although he did not go into action that day, he saw the Yorkshires and Lancashires climbing out of their dugouts to be mowed down before reaching the German line.


At 41 Patch was too old to be called up for the Second World War, but he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in Bath, and was trained to use a Vickers machine-gun if the Germans arrived. In 1942 Patch found himself called to deal with the results of the “Baedeker raids” and found himself fighting fires all night, not only in Bath but also in Bristol and Weston-super-Mare. The pumps ran out of water because the drains were fractured, and he found himself diving under his fire engine as it was sprayed with bullets from a low-flying plane.

ZUI also this article from the BBC:
He was a plumber from Somerset, in many ways an unremarkable man, but Harry Patch became the last British survivor of the carnage of the Western Front.

He was the final physical link to a conflict that saw two armies bogged down in the mud of Flanders and northern France for more than four years.


Harry Patch's war came to an end on 22 September, 1917 when a German shell burst over the heads of his five man Lewis gun team. Three of them were blown to pieces while Patch was wounded in the groin by a piece of shrapnel.

He was in hospital for 12 months and was convalescing on the Isle of Wight when the Armistice was signed.

In 1919 he married Ada Billington, a girl he met while recovering from his wound and returned to work as a plumber. They had two sons, Dennis and Roy, but he outlived both of them.


In 1980 he remarried, but his wife Jean passed away in 1984. From 2003 he had a third partner, Doris, who lived in the same retirement home and died two years ago.


On his 101st birthday he travelled to France where he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, and subsequently made an officer of the Legion d'Honneur.

In 2008, he was also honoured by the Belgian king, Albert II, who appointed him Knight of the Order of Leopold.

One of his favourite awards however was that of the Freedom of the City of Wells, where he had lived for many years.

In 2007 he became the UK's oldest author when he collaborated with Richard van Emden to write The Last Fighting Tommy, a detailed account of his life.

ZUI also this obituary from The Guardian. Wikipedia has an article here, with links to numerous other articles of interest.

The Last Fighting Tommy is available from Amazon, as well as from other sources.

Patch's death came just a week after that of fellow veteran Harry Allingham, the last RAF survivor of the Great War.

At the time of his death Patch was the oldest man in Europe, as well as the 46th-oldest person in the world. He is the first supercentenarian listed by the Gerontology Research Group (GRG) to die since Allingham's death on 18 July.

The GRG's list of validated living supercentenarians (people who have reached their 110th birthday) currently includes 75 people (4 men and 71 women), ranging from 115-year-old Gertrude Baines of California (born 6 Apr 1894) to Grazia-Giovanna Carbonaro-Pitrolo of Italy (born 5 Apr 1899); six of them (all women) live in England.

* Choules served in the Royal Navy during World War I, and then in the Royal Australian Navy during World War II.

Update 1148 29 Jul: ZUI this article from the MOD Defence News:
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has announced plans for a national service commemorating those who served in the First World War following the passing of Harry Patch, the last British veteran of the war.


Paying tribute to Mr Patch, the Prime Minister said:
"I had the honour of meeting Harry, and I share his family's grief at the passing of a great man.

"I know that the whole nation will unite today to honour the memory, and to take pride in the generation that fought the Great War.

"The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force - 'We will remember them'."


Harry's funeral will be held in Wells Cathedral. The funeral cortege through Wells and the subsequent service at the cathedral will be an opportunity for the people of this country to pay their respects to Harry as the last representative of those who served in the trenches.

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