Mon, Oct 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Oldest British and German veterans embrace as friends

THE OBSERVER , WITTEN, GERMANY

Britain's and Germany's oldest veterans met for the first time, 90 years after they served on the Western front.

"I am the enemy you killed, my friend." That lament from Wilfred Owen's poem Strange Meeting resonated afresh on Saturday when two men who were enemies in a world war 90 years ago embraced each other as friends.

Henry Allingham, Britain's oldest World War I veteran, and Robert Meier, who is Germany's equivalent, braved driving rain to attend what must have been one of the most informal, and moving, of all memorial services. With a combined age of 219, these two men know better than anyone the meaning of remembrance.

Allingham, making his first trip to Germany since he served in the army of occupation after the Great War, was in Meier's home town, Witten, near Dortmund, for the special meeting ahead of next month's Armistice anniversary. The men speak different languages but communicated with perfect eloquence through their actions, clasping each other's hands and hugging warmly.

Allingham, 110, proudly wearing his war medals, said: "I'm very happy to be here and remember how good the German people were to me when I was last here in 1919."

Meier, 109, sporting a flamboyant black beret, added: "It's wonderful to be together. Everybody has to be friends."

Together, the centenarians, dressed smartly in suits, ignored a downpour as they were wheeled side by side to a tall, brick war memorial in the town's Lutherpark. With a monumental effort, aided by Royal Air Force (RAF) men in uniform, Allingham struggled to his feet and laid a wreath of poppies at its foot.

Then the two men -- who were foes in the same sector of the Western front in 1917 -- shook hands and, with unexpected tenderness, could not let one another go. For long minutes their hands remained as if welded together. Allingham glanced across at his new friend, then burst into a mischievous chuckle.

There were short speeches from Witten's mayor and from the RAF's deputy commander-in-chief, Peter Dye, who said: "It's very special that these two men are here in the spirit of friendship and peace. May their example be something we think about and reflect upon."

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