Harry Patch, Britain’s last survivor of the trenches of World War I, was a reluctant soldier who became a powerful eyewitness to the horror of war and a symbol of a lost generation.
Patch, who died on Saturday aged 111, was wounded in 1917 in the Battle of Passchendaele, which he remembered as “mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood.”
“Anyone who tells you that in the trenches they weren’t scared, he’s a damned liar: you were scared all the time,” Patch was quoted as saying in a book, The Last Fighting Tommy.
The Fletcher House care home in Wells, southwest England, said Patch “quietly slipped away” on Saturday morning.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the whole country would mourn “the passing of a great man.”
“The noblest of all the generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten. We say today with still greater force, ‘We Will Remember Them,’” Brown said.
Queen Elizabeth II said “we will never forget the bravery and enormous sacrifice of his generation.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defense called Patch the last British military survivor of the 1914-1918 war, although British-born Claude Choules of Australia, 108, is believed to have served in the Royal Navy during the conflict.
The Ministry of Defense said Patch was the last soldier of any nationality to have fought in the brutal trench warfare that has become the enduring image of the conflict.
There are no French or German veterans of the war left alive. The last known US veteran is Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, 108, who drove ambulances in France for the US Army.
Patch was adamant that the slaughter he witnessed had not been justified.
“I met someone from the German side and we both shared the same opinion: we fought, we finished and we were friends,” he said in 2007. “It wasn’t worth it.”
Born in southwest England in 1898, Patch was a teenage apprentice plumber when he was called up for military service in 1916. After training he was sent to the trenches as a machine-gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
The five-man Lewis gun team had a pact to try not to kill any enemy soldiers but to aim at their legs unless it came down to killing or being killed, he said.
Patch was part of the third battle of Ypres in Belgium. The offensive began on July 31, 1917, and it rained all but three days of August. It was not until Nov. 6, 1917, that British and Canadian forces had progressed 8km to capture what was left of the village of Passchendaele. The cost was 325,000 allied casualties and 260,000 Germans.
Patch’s war had ended on Sept. 22, when he was seriously wounded by shrapnel, which killed three other members of his machine gun team.
“My reaction was terrible; it was losing a part of my life,” he said.
“I’d taken an absolute liking to the men in the team, you could say almost love. You could talk to them about anything and everything. I mean, those boys were with you night and day, you shared everything with them and you talked about everything,” Patch said.
He and the other survivor agreed that they would never share details of the incident with the families of their comrades.
“I mean, there was nothing left, nothing left to bury, and I don’t think they would have wanted to know that,” he said.
Patch recalled being unmoved by the excitement that swept his village of Combe Down, near Bath in southwestern England, when war broke out in 1914.