Harry Patch

Britain's Last Tommy

THE Last Post finally sounded for Britain's Last Tommy today — 91 years after the end of the First World War. Harry Patch, who lived to the remarkable age of 111, was laid to rest with thousands attending his funeral. He was the last surviving British soldier who served in the trenches of the Western Front and his generation now passes into history with his death. Around 1,400 mourners filled the 12th Century cathedral in Wells, Somerset, for the momentous service and twice as many more packed the Green outside. They included scores of veterans of later wars, many of whom travelled from all over Britain.

[ Well's Somerset ]

[ Harry Patch ]

Others came from France, Belgium and Germany to pay their respects to the man who became a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Canon Patrick Woodhouse, Precentor of Wells, said: "Harry was a gentle, modest and dignified man. "People were warmed by his basic human decency. "He was an ordinary man of Somerset who came to be greatly loved and respected. "He came to represent to us all a generation, the flower of whose youth gave their lives in huge numbers in a terrible war." Harry — who never talked about the horrors he witnessed until he had turned 100 — spent his final years in a nursing home in Wells.  Crowds started gathering on the streets and the Cathedral Green from breakfast time. They included young Liam Troake, aged eight, from Bristol, who asked his grandma to take him "because he wanted to say goodbye to the old soldier". His Nan Linda Troake said: "Liam had read about Harry and said he wanted to be here on his special day and to honour him. "It was clear he was a modest man who had a very interesting life and it is good for children to remember people like him." Jack Coggins, eight, travelled from Dumfriesshire, Scotland, with his mum Catherine and brother Luke. He said: "We've come to say goodbye to the last Tommy. "He was in the First World War, like the statue in our village. It's important to say goodbye and thank you." 

Former Grenadier Guardsman Rugby Curtis, 65, came from his home in Brittany and said: "I've got a lot of respect for Harry Patch. "He was an exceptional man and it's important that people know and always remember we owe our veterans an awful lot." Falkland veteran Martin Heale, 47, who served in the Royal Navy, was part of a 20-strong Royal British Legion "Riders" group of motorcycle enthusiasts who attended. Martin, of Taunton, Somerset, said: "As a veteran myself it is nice to pay my respects to another veteran who fought so long ago. "He also fought for the same cause I did - keeping this country free and safe." Ronald Drew, 77, from Bath, Somerset, who served in the Army catering corps, said: "Harry was born about a mile from me. "He was such a wonderful man - and what an age! "It's good to see so many people here but I think the Prime Minister really should be here, and Prince Charles too. "It is such an historic day they should be involved."  The VIPs included the Duchess of Cornwall, Harriet Harman on behalf of the PM, Chief of the General Staff General Sir Richard Dannatt and Veterans Minister Kevan Jones. General Sir Richard said: "It is a great honour and privilege to represent the British Army at the funeral of Harry Patch. "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. ‘Harry let his demons out and they did their work, emerging from his dreams to torment and terrify him.’ "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."  Harry married twice but outlived both wives, Ada and Jean, and also his two sons Dennis and Roy. His closest surviving family are his three grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. The half-muffled bells of the Cathedral rang out 111 times — marking each year of his life — as the funeral procession began. 

[ Harry Patch ]

Harry's coffin — covered in a Union flag and with a single wreath of red roses — was driven to the Cathedral from the nursing home on the edge of Wells where he spent his final years. The six pall bearers who marched behind the hearse were drawn from the 1st Battalion The Rifles, of which The Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry — Harry's regiment in the Great War — eventually became a part. The hearse was also escorted in the spirit of peace and reconciliation by two French, two Belgian and two German infantrymen. Behind them Harry's great-nephew David Tucker carried his medals in a wooden case which was placed on his coffin during the hour-long service.

Mr Tucker, 65, said: "Harry stood for hundreds of thousands of veterans from every country and that's why he made his stand, so that people would never forget the sacrifice he and millions made. "It is important after all this time that we can close the wounds of the First World War." A gentle rain began to fall as Harry's coffin was driven around the edge of the Cathedral Green amid complete silence from the huge crowd. It was carried into the West Front of the Cathedral just after midday and the service was relayed on a huge outside screen. The Dean of Wells, the Very Reverend John Clarke, told the congregation: "We are here to celebrate the life of Henry John Patch - Harry.  "A Somerset man, the last veteran of the trenches and an ambassador for peace and reconciliation. "We give thanks for his long life, his courage, his sense of humour, his humanity, his truthfulness." In a personal tribute close friend Jim Ross said: "He was both a national icon and at the same time an ordinary man, a retired plumber from Coombe Down who showed us true heroism. "As he grew from being very old to being very, very old his spirit was undaunted - and he could still charm the ladies. "He spent 80 years imprisoning the horrors of the trenches in the back of his mind. Harry let his demons out and they did their work, emerging from his dreams to torment and terrify him. "He let it all out so we could hear his message of peace and reconciliation. "We are the ordinary men, Harry was the extraordinary man. "Now at long last Harry, rest in peace."  Order of services were handed out to the crowd outside and people sang along to the hymns. Representatives from the Belgian and German governments gave readings and Harry's medals were formally handed over to his old regiment's museum.  Just after 1pm Harry's coffin was borne out of the Cathedral and it halted beneath the towering West Front as two buglers played the Last Post. After a minute's silence it was then driven back around the Cathedral Green where the crowd broke into respectful applause and the light rain became a sudden downpour. From the Cathedral Harry's body was taken to a private burial service for close family and friends. Harry was born in Somerset on 17 June 1898 and at the time of his death in his sleep on July 25 he was Europe's oldest man and the third oldest in the world. He left school at 15 and became an apprentice plumber before he was conscripted in 1916. After six months training he was sent to the Western Front where he served as an assistant machine gunner in the 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. He fought during the infamous Battle of Passchendaele which claimed the lives of more than 70,000 soldiers. His service was cut short after four months in September 1917 when a shell exploded above him, killing three comrades and leaving him wounded with shrapnel. He was sent back to Britain where he met his first wife Ada in 1918 as he convalesced and they were married for 60 years.

[ Harry  ]

After the war, Harry returned to plumbing and eventually retired in 1963. He was too old to fight during World War II and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in Bristol, tackling the blazes caused by the Luftwaffe's bombers. His first wife died in 1976 and Harry married a second time at the age of 81 but she died four years later. It was not until his 100th birthday that Harry achieved national fame as one of the few remaining veterans of the First World War.

In 1999 he received the Legion D'Honneur medal from the French and earlier this year it was upgraded to the prestigious officer rank by President Sarkozy. On his 110th birthday he was given Belgium's highest military accolade, the Knights of Leopold medal in recognition of his participation in Passchendaele.

But apart from the standard-issue service medals Harry was never officially honoured by his own country.

More about Harry Patch ... Wikipedia