Nick Gilmartin's Weblog

And he used to be such a nice, quiet boy

The Last Fighting Tommy rejoins his regiment

leave a comment »

Harry Patch

Yesterday the last fighting Tommy left this world and rejoined his regiment.

Harry Patch was 111, the third oldest man in the country and the last veteran of the First World War based in Britain.

He was sixteen years old when the war broke out, and he watched with envy as the young men of his town lined up to volunteer to fight.  He was at the time an apprentice plumber, having left school at thirteen.

Two years of fighting brought bloodshed on an unimaginable scale to the western front, and at Gallipoli, where the expeditionary force were fought to a standstill.

Harry was conscripted himself in 1917, into the Duke of Cornwall’s light infantry.  His training took six months and it was often contradictory.  At the time the army was trying to apply the lessons it had learned at the Somme to avoid another bloodbath.  It was here that Harry made many friends, but these friendships would soon be cut short.

It was perhaps his good fortune that Harry was not picked as an assault troop.  Instead he was designated as an assistant Lewis gunner.  This gun was huge and heavy, it could chew up ammunition at a ravenous rate and spit death over a wide area.  It was however prone to jam and it took a lot of looking after.  Harry learned all of this, stripping and cleaning, oiling and zeroing the sights.

The trenches of Passchendaele had no drainage and soon flooded

The trenches of Passchendaele had no drainage and soon flooded

He arrived on the western front in time for the Passchendaele offensive, in Belgium.  Many books have been written on the slaughter and it needs little for me to add to it.  In pouring rain and sludge the British troops advanced to gain control of the town of Passchendaele, if successful, they could cut the Germans off from the Belgian coast and control the ports.

Harry covered the advancing troops, firing short bursts to avoid jamming his weapon.  He did his best but there was little he could do to protect the troops who were fighting the mud as much as the Germans.

His war came to an abrupt end one night in September.  A German soldier managed to fire a shell that killed three of Harry’s comrades and injure him in the groin.

Harry was repatriated to England and convalesced on the Isle of Wight.  It was here that he learned of the armistice.  In celebration he and his friends decided to shoot off the rest of their ammunition, much to the fury of their officers.  But who cared?

He rejoined civilian life and settled down, remarkably well, to a life as a plumber.  Although Harry was a shaken man, he was not a broken one.  He carried on with life, married and had children.

He worked for four years on the Wills Memorial Building at Bristol University.  The depression of the thirties hit his plumbing business hard, but he survived, as always.  In time, the Second World War broke out.  Harry was by now too old to fight, so he became a fireman.  He was hard pressed during Goering’s Baedecker raids, an assault on Britain’s tourist towns.  His town played host to several regiments of American soldiers.  The first bunch were African American soldiers.  They were a nice polite bunch, they just seemed a little uneasy.  It never occurred to Harry or anybody that this was the first time in their lives that these men were relatively beyond the reach of rascism.

This fact became more noticeable when the Caucasian Americans arrived.  Harry was none too keen on them, they were brash and arrogant.  And they couldn’t seem to understand why the locals treated the Black soldiers as equals.  Several fights and riots broke out on many a Saturday night.

In 2007 he revisited the battlefields where he had risked his life and lost so many friends.  It was clear in his eyes that he remembered it like it was yesterday, the memories were alive in him as clear as day.

Harry Patch finally died yesterday.  In his long life he outlived both his sons and all three of his wives.

In his last moments did he see the faces of the men he knew?  Did his mind drift back to the moment a shell nearly ended his life?  Did he hear the call to arms beckoning him back into the company of his regiment?

Only Harry knows.

Harry Patch’s book, the Last Fighting Tommy, is available from all good bookstores.

The last fighting Tommy


Written by Nick Gilmartin

July 26, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: