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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’
Question of the Day
For much of the late 19th century and well into the next, it was a poignant experience for many young Americans to have the privilege of meeting Civil War veterans. For us now, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, there is a sense of preparing ourselves for the end of all the priceless firsthand testimony about World War II, not just its legendary battles but the civilian bombings and genocide that were also a part of that terrible time. So it is not surprising that as we approach the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, our last personal links with that terrible earlier global conflict of the last century have disappeared.
Private Harry Patch - what a marvelous name, as Britain’s Poet Laureate Andrew Motion wrote, redolent of Shakespeare’s Henry V and the Battle of Agincourt - was born in 1898 and died July 25 of last year at an astonishing age of 111. As he realized, he was fortunate to survive the slaughter that took away so many of his comrades at such famously awful battles as Ypres and Passchendaele. “I don’t know why I’m here at all,” he would remark with a sense of wonder that never went away during the more than 90 - count them - years that elapsed between his return to civilian life at the end of the war in 1918 and his death in 2009.
Like so many of his brave generation with their stiffer than stiff upper lips and iron in their character, he seldom if ever spoke of his experiences in the mud and filth, rats, lice and blood of the trenches, never mentioning anything about them at all to his wife during a half-century-long marriage.
But, of course, the memories were there all the time, bottled up in his mind, heart and soul. So as the ranks of survivors thinned out almost to extinction, his attitude changed and, once unleashed, recollection poured forth in interview after interview. And, fortunately for posterity - and for readers of this book - he committed them to paper in the last decade of his life, in his own inimitably plain, forthright style:
“They say life begins at forty, don’t they? Well, for me it began again at 100. On that day, back in 1998, the home had a big party for my birthday, and it was after that, that I suddenly started being contacted by newspapers and television, and it hasn’t really stopped since.”
Patch’s reminiscences are introduced and interleaved by narratives provided by his co-author, something that readers unfamiliar with the history of World War I will find useful in providing context. But of course, it is the use of those intensely personal, deeply felt words of a man who could so easily not have survived beyond age 20 - and whose memories of those around him who did not in fact do so - that makes his account so uniquely valuable:
“Anyone who tells you that in the trenches they weren’t scared, he’s a damned liar: you were scared all the time. … Front-line service wore the men down. I would get a butterfly in my stomach and my hands would shake, so for a moment or two I would have a job to coordinate my nerves to do anything. You couldn’t deal with the fear and apprehension we had about being hit by shrapnel. It was there and it always would be. … Word would come down, perhaps one of your mates had been wounded or killed. … That always made you think, ‘How long is it before I get hit?’ Not if, but when.”
Patch illustrates once again that true courage is not the absence of fear but the mastery, the overcoming of its terrors. In the event, he was indeed hit by shrapnel, which, had it been embedded half an inch deeper in his abdomen, would have been fatal. His memories of the agonies he suffered as the shrapnel was removed without painkillers of any kind, because they were all reserved for worse cases, are vivid - and painful even to read about.
While not minimizing the filth and privations of trench life, Patch can still retain some sense of humor. Remembering the drinking water brought up the line in gasoline cans inadequately washed, he writes, “There was a standing joke that if you were out there long enough you could tell the difference in taste as to whether the water came in a British Petroleum or Shell can.”
But what you mainly take away from this book is a feeling of awe for a man who did his duty while retaining his humanity. He recounts occasions on which he shot to maim rather than kill Germans opposite him, and then worried that they might have lost a limb. But of course he shot to kill when he had to, although he recognized that his German counterparts were only doing their duty and fighting for their kaiser and their nation as he was fighting for his king and country.
Looking back over the decades, Patch was under no illusions about the ultimate futility of the war that had nearly taken his life and killed so many others. He lived to see the horrors of World War II resulting from that earlier conflict. Too old to be drafted by the 1940s, he nonetheless served bravely as an auxiliary fireman in his hometown of Bath, experiencing the death and destruction wrought by bombing.
It is a measure of the man that he was if anything even more moved by visiting the war cemeteries in Normandy for GIs who had fought there than by those in Flanders for his fellow Tommies. He had gotten to know and like so many American soldiers in England preparing to cross the channel to liberate Europe that he was overcome with grief at seeing the evidence of just how costly their sacrifices had been. Harry Patch’s concern for others less lucky than himself as well as his own bravery made his a life as well-lived as it was long, and we are fortunate to have the firsthand testimony of this admirable man.
Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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