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Harry Patch – the war hero who condemned war

Peter Arkell reports

Harry Patch, who has died aged 111, was not the kind of war hero that politicians and the tabloid press feel comfortable with. Two years ago on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Paschendale, near Ypres in Flanders, he described war as the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings”.

He was the last surviving soldier who fought in the trenches of the First World War. In 1917 when he was posted to Paschendale he made a pact with the other four members of the Duke of Cornwall’s regiment that made up his Lewis machine gun team, not to kill an enemy soldier if they could help it. They would aim for the legs.

Later in his life he described what he saw and felt when mounting an attack from the trenches: "I can see the bewilderment and fear on the men's faces as we went over the top. We crawled because if you stood up, you'd be killed. All over the battlefield the wounded were lying there, English and German, all crying for help, but we weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed by and left them. You couldn't stop to help them. I came across a Cornishman who was ripped from his shoulder to his waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him. As I got to him he said, 'Shoot me.' Before I could draw my revolver he gasped one word, 'Mother'."

Patch was a crack shot, and when confronted by a German soldier, bayonet at the ready, charging towards him, he drew his revolver and shot him first in the shoulder, and then, when he carried on the charge, in the legs, finally bringing him down still alive.

Severely wounded by shrapnel from an artillery shell that killed his colleagues, he returned to England. After the war he went back to Somerset where he set up his own small plumbing firm. So angry and shocked was he by his experiences that he did not talk about the war until he reached the age of 100, when he agreed to give an interview to the BBC and to write a book about his life, The Last Fighting Tommy, with historian Richard Van Emden.

In 1999 Harry Patch received the Lėgion D'honneur medal awarded by the French government to 350 surviving First World War veterans who fought on the Western Front, dedicating it to his three fallen comrades. At the age of 110, the poet laureate Andrew Motion wrote a poem about his life, The Five Acts of Harry Patch. He even had a special edition cider named after him, and had his portrait painted by cricketer and artist Jack Russell. He returned to Ypres when he was 105 in order to lay a wreath to the memory of his friends, but was so overcome with emotion that the wreath had to be laid on his behalf.

Patch was one of many brave individuals on both sides who instinctively opposed the senseless carnage of the First World War, but who were unable, through no fault of their own, to explain the real nature of it. When the parties of the time,  including Labour in England and the German Social Democratic Party, voted for the war and for the money to prosecute it, the working classes, who had to do the fighting, were left leaderless, to be slaughtered in a conflict that was not of their making or in their interests.

The imperialist governments of France, Germany and Britain, driven to expand and conquer territory as well as fear of powerful workers’ movements that were beginning to challenge the system, resorted to a war to decide which state would dominate and to kill off the threat posed by socialist and trade union ideas.

Many opposed the war – as the Christmas truce agreed between ordinary soldiers on both sides showed – but could do little or nothing as individuals. The first decisive action against the war came in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, after which Lenin and Trotsky organised a unilateral withdrawal from the conflict and a separate, costly peace with Germany.

The great myth is perpetuated in the press and amongst politicians that the war was a heroic fight for survival. In calling for a memorial service earlier in the week, Gordon Brown said: “I think it is right … to remember the sacrifice and all the work that was done by those people who served our country during world war one and to remember what we owe to that generation – our freedom, our liberties, the fact that we are a democracy in the world.”

This kind of cliché is unlikely to cut much ice these days. In the First World War, as in the Iraq war and the current war in Afghanistan, the first thing that actually happens is the erosion and destruction of these freedoms, liberties and democracy in the name of national security. The real reasons for war are hidden and lied about. Thus the ludicrous claim that fighting in Afghanistan makes the streets of Britain safer! As Patch managed to tell Blair on one occasion: “War is organised murder.”

29 July 2009

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