What and why we must always remember
"We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.
We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.
Life in the trenches was dirty, lousy, unsanitary. The barrages that preceded battle were one long nightmare. And when you went over the top, it was just mud, mud and more mud. Mixed with blood. You struggled through it, with dead bodies all around you. Any one of them could have been me.
Yet 90 years on, I’m still here, now 109 years old. It’s incredible to think that of the millions who fought in the trenches in the First World War, I’m the only one left – the last Tommy.
So now, on Remembrance Sunday, it is up to me to speak out for all those fallen or forgotten comrades. But today isn’t just about my generation. It is about all the servicemen who have risked or given their lives, and the soldiers who are still doing so.
My comrades died long ago and it’s easy for us to feel emotional about them. But the nation should honour what we did by helping the young soldiers of today feel worthwhile, by making them feel that their sacrifice has been worth it.
Remember the men in Iraq and Afghanistan. Don’t make them wait eight decades, like my generation had to wait, to feel appreciated.
The time for really remembering our Forces is while they are at war or in the years immediately after they return, when they are coping with the shock and distress or just the problems of returning to civilian life.
That is what upsets me now. It is as if we have not learned the lessons of the war of 90 years ago.
Last year, the politicians suggested holding a commemoration service at Westminster Abbey to honour the remaining First World War veterans. But why? What for? It was too, too late.
Why didn’t they think about doing something when the boys came back from the war bloodied and broken? And why didn’t they do more for the veterans and the widows in later life?
It was easy to forget about them because for years afterwards they never spoke out about the horrors they had experienced. I was the same. For 80 years I bottled it up, never mentioning my time in the trenches, not even to my wife or sons.
I never watched a war film either. It would have brought back too many bad memories.
And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.
Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.
He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.
Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.
He told me: “I fought you because I was told to and you did the same.” It’s sad but true.
When Charles and I met, we’d both had a long time to think about the war and all that had happened. We both agreed it had been a pointless exercise. We didn’t know each other, we’d never met before, so why would we want to kill each other?
Charles has died now, but after our meeting he wrote me a letter. It said: “Shaking your hand was an honour and with that handshake we said more about peace than anything else ever could. On Sunday, I shall think of you, old comrade.”
Now, finally, I feel I can talk about those times. I’ve even written a book about my life and they say that makes me the oldest ever first-time author. Isn’t that something? I hope it helps people understand how the young men of my generation suffered.
I was conscripted into the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1916, by which time enthusiasm for the war had fallen away. I knew when I watched the White Cliffs receding as I sailed for France that I might never see England again.
I was put in a Lewis gun crew with three others and we became a very close team by the time we were ordered up to the front line during the Battle of Passchendaele. It was August 16, 1917, and just a couple of months after my 19th birthday.
It doesn’t matter how much training you’ve had, you can’t prepare for the reality of the front line – the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties, the call for stretcher-bearers.
Exactly 90 years later, in July this year, I returned to that very spot with The Mail on Sunday. There, in the sleepy Flanders countryside, I stared out at what was once No Man’s Land and it all came back to me.
The bombardment like non-stop claps of thunder, the ground we had to cover, the stench of rotting bodies who would never be buried.
You lived in fear and counted the hours. You saw the sun rise, hopefully you’d see it set. If you saw it set, you hoped to see it rise. Some men would, some wouldn’t.
Then the war, for me, suddenly came to an end. We were crossing open ground at Pilckem Ridge on September 22. In my mind, I can still see the shell explosion that took three of my pals and nearly did for me too.
I wasn’t told until later that the three behind me had been blown to pieces. My reaction was terrible and it’s still difficult to explain. It was like losing part of my life. The friendship you have during a war, it’s almost like love.
It was because of those three men that I did not speak about the war for most of my life. It was too painful. Today I have forgiven the men who killed them – they were in the same position as us. I find it harder, though, to forgive the politicians.
Somebody told me the other day that at homecoming parades for our men in Iraq and Afghanistan, barely anyone turns up. I was shocked. Even in our day there would at least be some kind of welcome.
I hope that today people will take the time to remember not just those who have died but those who are alive and fighting for our country. Please don’t forget them – or leave your thanks until it is too late."
Harry Patch was talking to Nigel Blundell
• The Last Fighting Tommy, by Harry Patch with Richard van Emden (Bloomsbury). Britain’s Last Tommies, also by Richard van Emden (Pen & Sword).