Harry Patch’s life nearly ended in 1917 as he stood in a muddy trench during the World War I battle of Passchendaele. An artillery shell burst right over his head, wounding him and killing three of his best pals. But Patch didn’t die that day; in fact, he survived to become the last living veteran to have experienced the classic trench warfare synonymous with the Great War.
In 2007, at age 107, Harry published an autobiography told through interviews, The Last Fighting Tommy, all about an ordinary fellow — an apprentice plumber who grew up near Bath, England, went to war, came back, became a fire warden during the Blitz in the Second World War and then retreated into a normal obscurity. Harry never discussed his early World War I years with anyone. Survivors of the Great War became fewer as time went by, and when asked for an interview for a BBC program in 1998, he finally opened up about his life. Fame, of a sort, followed as he became the symbolic spokesman for his generation, although he frequently pointed out that he hadn’t done anything extraordinary.
The Last Fighting Tommy is not purely a book about Harry’s life in the war. Instead, it’s a charming and at times inspiring companionable chat with someone who lived most of the 20th century, told with verve. Having outlived nearly every contemporary, Patch grew into his role of Great War spokesman, revisiting the battlefield, meeting a few other survivors — including a German soldier who had opposed him at Passchendaele — and speaking out against war and violence with clarity of mind and a sagacity gained over his many decades.
This year, 2012, marked the end of living memory of World War I with the passing of Florence Green, an enlisted waitress during the war who died on February 4th. She was the last surviving veteran, another who never really discussed it until the end. Her obituary is here.
Frank Buckles, the last American survivor, died in February 2011, and also grew into his role as the last of his kind. He served as an ambulance driver under fire during 1918, led a normal life through rest of 20th the century and became famous at the end. His obituary is here.
These three veterans served during an innocent and idealistic time in the “War to End All Wars.” With their passing, something of our shared humanity passes too — that recollection of the old world, the Edwardian world of Harry Patch and the optimistic American frontier world of Frank Buckles. Now it can exist only in printed words, faded photographs and scratchy recordings. Truly, it is now All Quiet on the Western Front.