WELLS, England – Harry Patch, the last known survivor of trench warfare on World War I’s Western Front, was buried Thursday in his native village with the simplicity he craved.
He was Britain’s last infantry veteran of the Great War, and his funeral was a tribute not only to a simple man but also to the millions of soldiers who died on the battlefields of northern Europe.
British soldiers, marching shoulder-to-shoulder with their comrades from Belgium, France and even Germany, a former foe, escorted Patch’s coffin through this town in western England on Thursday to honour Patch’s respect for all the soldiers in the war.
People stood quietly as the coffin, shrouded in a Union flag, rolled through the soundless streets. As the hearse passed, townspeople fell in behind, walking in silent tribute.
Patch, who died July 25 at age 111, began talking about his experience of trench warfare only in his last years, having shared nothing with his family. He had returned, wounded, from the Western Front and quietly lived out his life as a plumber.
He outlived two wives and both of his sons.
Gen. Richard Dannatt, the top commander of Britain’s army, attended the service at Wells Cathedral. An honour guard was drawn from The Rifles regiment, successor to Patch’s unit.
“Today marks the passing of a generation, and of a man who dedicated his final years to spreading the message of peace and reconciliation,” said Veterans’ Minister Kevan Jones. “Active participation in the Great War is now no longer part of living memory in this country, but Harry Patch will continue to be a symbol of the bravery and sacrifice shown by him and those he served with.”
Only a handful of veterans of the war remain, including British-born Claude Choules of Australia, 108, who served in the Royal Navy, and Frank Woodruff Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia.
Patch boasted that he hadn’t killed anyone in combat, but he did shoot at the legs of a German soldier who charged with a bayonet.
“He called out something to me in German, I don’t suppose it was complimentary, but for him the war was over,” he said.
“I’ve often wondered whether he realized that I gave him his life. He was no more than 15 yards away when I shot him. I couldn’t miss, not with a Webley service revolver, not at that range.”
At least 8.5 million soldiers are reckoned to have perished in the 1914-18 war.
“Too many died,” Patch had said. “War isn’t worth one life.”
An hour before the service, people lined up along the mile-long (1.6 kilometre-long) route from the nursing home where Patch died to the cathedral, and several hundred gathered under leaden skies on the green outside the cathedral. Among them were many elderly men with military medals on their chests, and one in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion.
Joe Davis, 81, said his father, like Patch, would never talk abut his experiences in World War I. He said he learned details of his father’s war service only after he died.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Was it so horrible they couldn’t talk about it?”
During the memorial service, Patch’s friend Jim Ross said the veteran described his experiences only reluctantly – and in hopes that his words would be used to encourage peace.
“Harry knew that by speaking out, the memories would come back, the demons I call them, would come back to torment and torture him,” he told the mourners. “I believe they did, but I believe Harry made the decision because he wanted to get his message broadcast. His prime message is that we should settle disputes by negotiation and compromise, not by war.”
Patch will be buried where he was born, in the mining village of Combe Down, 20 miles (33 kilometres) northeast of Wells.
Patch felt no urge to volunteer after war was declared in 1914, but two years later he was drafted into the army, and sent to France in the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
He was part of a British offensive which began July 31, 1917, in the third battle of Ypres.
It rained all but three days of the following month. Patch remembered the battlefield as “mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood.”
Recalling a time when he went “over the top” into no man’s land, Patch said: “All over the battlefield the wounded were lying down, English and German all asking for help. We weren’t like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed and left them. You couldn’t help them.”
He was wounded on Sept. 22 in a shell blast which killed three members of his gun team.
The offensive carried on until Nov. 6 when the British claimed victory, having advanced five miles (eight kilometres) in three months to capture what was left of the village of Passchendaele. There were nearly 600,000 dead and injured on the two sides.
Working with historian Richard van Emden, Patch produced a book in 2007, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” a reference to the nickname given to soldiers of that era. He donated the profits to purchase a lifeboat.
Patch joined two other veterans – Henry Allingham and Bill Stone – on Nov. 11 at the national Remembrance service in London, all in wheelchairs.
Allingham, 113, an air force veteran, died a week before Patch. Royal Navy veteran Stone, 108 and the last British veteran to serve in both World Wars, died Jan. 10.
On the eve of Patch’s funeral, the rock group Radiohead released a song, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of),” in tribute to Patch. The group said profits from downloads would go to the British Legion, the national veterans’ organization.
“I am the only one that got through, the others died where ever they fell,” the song begins.