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Britain’s last WWI vet dies at 111
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.
Mr. 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 five miles to capture what was left of the village of Passchendaele. The cost was 325,000 Allied casualties and 260,000 Germans.
Mr. 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.”
Ever after, he regarded that date as his Remembrance Day instead of the national commemoration on Nov. 11.
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.
Mr. 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.
“I didn’t welcome the war at all, and never felt the need to get myself into khaki and go out there fighting before it was ‘all over by Christmas.’ That’s what people were saying, that the war wouldn’t last long,” he said.
His most vivid memory of the war was of encountering a comrade whose torso had been ripped open by shrapnel. “Shoot me,” Mr. Patch recalled the soldier pleading.
The man died before Patch could draw his revolver.
“I was with him for the last 60 seconds of his life. He gasped one word - ‘Mother.’ That one word has run through my brain for 88 years. I will never forget it.”
When he was wounded, Mr. Patch said he was told that the medics had run out of anesthetic, but he agreed to go ahead with surgery to remove shrapnel from his stomach.
“Four people caught hold of me, one each leg, one each arm, and the doctor got busy,” he recalled. “I’d asked him how long he’d be and he’d said, ‘Two minutes,’ and in those two minutes I could have … killed him.”
After the war ended in 1918, Mr. Patch returned to work as a plumber, got married, raised a family and didn’t start talking about his war experiences until the 21st century. He outlived three wives and both of his sons.
By Tom Fitton
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