August 7, 2009

Thousands Mourn Britain’s Oldest Warrior

I came across this moving article from the New York Times.
Harry Patch, the last living British soldier from World War 1 has a story similar to many returning Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers. I think his saga deserves a few moments of our time.
I can't understand how we still allow our governments to take our young and send them off to war after all the testimonies of soldiers who have been there . . . and came back to share their horrors.

photo: Carl De Souza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By JOHN F. BURNS, Published: August 6, 2009
WELLS, England — Harry Patch was past his 100th birthday before he began speaking out about the horrors he endured as a machine gunner in Flanders in World War I, when he survived the fighting at Ypres that was among the bloodiest in a war that took the lives of nearly 900,000 men from Britain and its colonies.

When Mr. Patch finally broke 80 years of silence, in the final decade of a life that was honored by thousands of mourners who gathered at his funeral on Thursday in this quiet cathedral town set in rolling green hills 140 miles west of London, his message was not the traditional story of valor and patriotism under fire. Rather, he took as his central themes the futility of war and the common humanity of soldiers who meet as enemies on the battlefield.

It was a gospel expressed in the simple language of a man who was a 19-year-old private when he was struck by the burst of a German shell over the British trenches in September 1917 and sent home to recover from his wounds. Working as a plumber in Wells until his retirement, he lived to the age of 111 before he died on July 25, when he was listed by Britain’s Defense Ministry as the last survivor among the millions of British soldiers who fought in the trenches on the Western Front.

In his last years, he became a national celebrity, memorialized in a poem written by Andrew Motion, then the poet laureate, and in a song fashioned from Mr. Patch’s own words about the fighting in the trenches that was recorded by the pop group Radiohead (“I’ve seen devils coming up from the ground/I’ve seen hell upon this earth.”) He met it all with the same modesty, saying that it was not he who should be honored but the men who fell at the battlefront, “the ones who didn’t come home.”

At a time when a new generation of British soldiers has been sent into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering casualties that have stirred growing public disquiet, Mr. Patch’s voice struck a deep chord. War, he said once, was “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,” too often sent into combat as “cannon fodder” by politicians who should have settled their conflicts by dueling among themselves. “War isn’t worth one life,” he said. “Too many died.”

As for the carnage on the Western Front, on both sides, he said all who fought, whether British or German, should be mourned. “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore,” he told the BBC, “we were all victims.” When he attended remembrance services for the war dead, as he did in London last November on the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the war, he pressed the message home. “Remember the Germans,” he said.

At his funeral, televised live in Britain, it was these themes that shaped the service. Mr. Patch told officials that he did not want a state funeral, and not a military one, either, at least not one with rifle or artillery salutes. His coffin was draped with the Union Jack, and carried into the 13th-century Gothic cathedral by soldiers from The Rifles, the British Army unit whose regimental antecedent was the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the unit that Mr. Patch fought for in Flanders. But no weapons, not even ceremonial ones, were allowed into the cathedral.

But the feature that would have been likely to please Mr. Patch more than any other was the presence, as honorary pallbearers, of two German soldiers in full dress uniform, part of a six-man contingent that also included soldiers from Belgium and France. A German diplomat, Eckhard Lubkemeier, offered a New Testament reading from Corinthians that spoke of Christ’s “message of reconciliation.”

Along with traditional Anglican hymns, the service included a singing of Pete Seeger’s Vietnam-era antiwar ballad, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” sung by a young woman from the cathedral choir. A Belgian diplomat read an excerpt from Mr. Patch’s 2007 autobiography, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” in which he described an offensive during the battle at Paschendaele, the bloodiest chapter in the Ypres fighting, when he came across a fellow soldier “ripped from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel” during a British assault on German lines.

The episode reinforced in Mr. Patch, a devout Christian, the belief that there is a life after death. “When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me,’ ” he recalled. “He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy.”

He added, “I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day, I’ve always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.”

For many in Britain, Mr. Patch’s death signaled another kind of end, the departure of the last man living who could tell what it was to be a soldier in “the Great War,” as many here still call it, leaving only military archives and history books and documentaries to tell the story. “We mark the end of an era,” said the Very Rev. John Clarke, the dean of the cathedral. “The last voice with direct experience of combat in the trenches of the First World War has fallen silent.”

Official mourners at the funeral included the Duchess of Cornwall, the former Camilla Parker-Bowles, who is married to Prince Charles, and Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff, Britain’s top army commander. Queen Elizabeth, on vacation in Scotland, as always at this time of year, is expected to lead a national memorial service for all of Britain’s World War I dead at Westminster Abbey this fall.

But the strongest testament to Mr. Patch’s iconic status came from the crowds who gathered outside the cathedral, undeterred by a persistent drizzle. The town’s sidewalks were packed three and four deep with people who applauded as the cortege drove past, among them Americans, Australians and visitors from across Europe, including Germans.

A crowd of about 2,500 watching the funeral on a giant video screen erected on the cathedral green, including families with small children and dogs, pensioners in wheelchairs, a vacationing fisherman with his tackle slung over his shoulder and a leather-jacketed motorcyclist with a ponytail. Among them, ramrod still, was a platoon of somber-faced men wearing replica World War I army uniforms.

Many said they had come to honor Mr. Patch, and with him the generation of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought and died in the war. “Even if they were treated as cannon fodder, as lions led by donkeys, they died for their country and made the world a better place,” said Richard Bowery, a 54-year-old jobless man who came with his wife, Amanda. “It’s just a pity that not many of the younger generation these days understand what sacrifices they made.”
Alan Cowell contributed reporting from London.

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