Harry Patch Last Combat Veteran of World War I Dies

Patch's Death Leaves only Four Veterans from That War Alive Today

On July 25, 2009, exactly a week to the day following the death of British World War I veteran Henry Allingham, Great Britain lost another veteran of World War I with the passing of Harry Patch.

The death of Henry John Patch or Harry Patch as he came to be known, leaves the world with only four verified veterans of that war who are still living.

The four are Claude Stanley Choules, who served in and fought with the Royal Navy before moving to Australia where he served with the Royal Australian Navy during World War II and still lives in Australia today. 

Frank Woodruff Buckles, an American, who lied about his age and joined the U.S. Army at age 16 when the war began.

John Henry Foster Babcock who served in the Canadian Army during the war and now lives in the United States.  The fourth is a woman, Florence Green who served in Britain's Woman's Royal Air Force during World War I.

Death of Harry Patch

He Lived Through the Entire 20th Century

Even though there are still four living veterans of that war, Harry Patch was the last in many ways.

He was the last living veteran to have fought with the British Army during World War I, the last veteran of that war still living in Great Britain (although Choules, who lives in Australia, is still considered a British veteran of that war) and the last to have fought in the infamous trenches in World War I (Choules served in the Navy, Babcock served in a support unit stationed in England, Buckles fought as an ambulance and motor cycle driver at the front in France, and Green served at air bases in England).

And, for the last week of his life, Harry Patch replaced the deceased Henry Allingham as the oldest man in Europe. However, at 111 years in age, Patch was unable to surpass Allingham's record of having been, at age 113, the oldest man in British history.

Born on June 17, 1898 in the English village of Combe Down, Patch, in 1913, quit school at age 15 to go to work as an apprentice plumber. Three years later, in 1916, he was drafted into the British Army for duty in World War I and had to put his plumbing career on hold. Patch was trained as a gunner and, following his training, was sent to the trenches on the Continent in June 1917.

Harry's Older Brother Warned Him About What Life Would Be Like in the Trenches

Harry Patch had two older brothers, one of whom was a career soldier with the rank of Sergeant Major in Britain's Royal Engineers when the war broke out.

This brother saw action in the trenches of France at the beginning of the war and served there until he was wounded and sent back to England where he spent the rest of the war as an instructor training new soldiers.

Harry learned from his brother about how bad life was in the trenches and had no desire to experience that life himself.

However, in January of 1916 Parliament passed the Military Service Act which became effective on March 2, 1916 and made all single men between the ages of 18 and 41 eligible to be conscripted (drafted) for military service.

Prior to the enactment of this act, Britain had always relied on volunteers, like Harry's older brother, to fill the ranks of its armed forces.

On June 17, 1916 Harry Patch, a single young man working as a plumber, celebrated his eighteenth birthday. A few months later, in October 1916, Harry Patch received his conscription notice and began his military training.

After completing his basic training and training as a gunner's assistant, he was assigned to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Regiment.

During the second week of June 1917, a few days before his nineteenth birthday (which fell on Sunday, the beginning of the third week of June 1917), Harry Patch joined others in his unit in the trenches in France.

Harry Patch at Age 109 at Passchendaele

Harry Patch Waited 80 Years Before Discussing His Wartime Experience

Harry served in the trenches at the front four months before being wounded and sent back to England to recover. Fortunately for him, by the time he was fully recovered from his wounds the Armistice had been signed so the Army kept him in England. Harry Patch was discharged following the end of the war.

While the war technically ended on November 11, 1918 (Armistice Day), that date was actually a cease fire negotiated by both sides to stop the fighting while dipliomats discussed a possible end to the war, so Patch and others were probably not discharged until some time in 1919 when it was certain that the fighting would not resume. The war officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919 which meant that Harry Patch would have been discharged shortly before or shortly after his twentieth birthday.

Like many veterans who have seen combat on the front lines, Harry's only thought upon leaving the Army was to put the war behind him and try to forget the horrors of that part of his life. And, forget it he did for during the eight decades of his life following his discharge, Harry not only avoided discussing his war years, he also had no desire to watch any war movies, read books about war or participate in Veterans activities. It wasn't until he reached 100 years old and the media discovered that he was one of the few remaining veterans of that war that he began to regularly talk about his experiences.

However, Harry Patch's remininces contained no tales of glory, only the horror and misery of war. Here are some quotes from Harry Patch that appear on the page dedicated to him on the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Regiment's site (see Links for Additional Information about Harry Patch link module below for link to this page and the BBC page which contains a recording of Harry making many of these statements):

The War in Harry Patch's Words

The trenches were about six feet deep, about three feet wide - mud, water, a duckboard if you were lucky. You slept on the firing step, if you could, shells bursting all around you.  From the time I went to France - the second week in June 1917 - until I left 23rd December 1917, injured by shellfire, I never had a bath. I never had any clean clothes.

You daren't show above [the trench] otherwise a sniper would have you.

That is another thing with shell shock - I never saw anyone with it, never experienced it - but it seemed you stood at the bottom of the ladder and you just could not move. Shellshock took all the nervous power out of you. An officer would come down and very often shoot them as a coward. That man was no more a coward than you or I. He just could not move. That's shell shock. Towards the end of war they recognised it as an illness. The early part of the war - they didn't. If you were there you were shot.

Rats as big as cats. Anything they could gnaw, they would - to live. ... As you went to sleep, you would cover your face with a blanket and you could hear the damn things run over you.

He was laying there in a pool of blood. As we got to him, he said, 'Shoot me.' He was beyond all human aid. Before we would pull out the revolver to shoot him, he died. ... And when that fellah died, he just said one word: 'Mother.' It wasn't a cry of despair. It was a cry or surprise and joy. I think - although I wasn't allowed to see her - I am sure his mother was in the next world to welcome him. ... And from that day until today - and now I'm nearly 106 years old - I shall always remember that cry and I shall always remember that death is not the end.

[Excerpts above from: Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry Website ]

Harry Patch experienced the horrors of one of the Twentieth Century's worst wars and he lived long enough to share this experience with new generations living almost a century after that war.

Interview with a Biographer of Harry Patch

More by this Author


Comments 7 comments

Chuck profile image

Chuck 2 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Ed Moran - You are correct about Harry Patch not liking war and not wanting to have any weapons at his funeral.

Like others who have seen combat, Patch tried to put his memories of the war aside and never spoke about his wartime service until he emerged as one of the last surviving World War I combat soldiers and the the press and public began asking him about it.

I have seen accounts of other soldiers from World War II who shut out their memories of the war and whose children never knew about their fathers' military service until after the soldier died and the children came across letters, diaries, discharge papers, etc. that had been tucked away and hidden since the soldier's discharge.

While these men, who had lived through the horrors of combat, tried to return to normal life and never spoke of their war time experiences the rest of their lives, they still deserve our honor and respect for having answered their country's call and for serving honorably.

Thanks for your post.


Ed Moran 2 years ago

Harry Patch said, "War is nothing but organized murder." He and several other young men pledged to never kill anyone in the war, and they didn't.

He also stipulated that no weapons were to be at his funeral. He was a good man and anti war. He snubbed Blair for his war mongering. RIP, Harry Patch.


csheal6249 4 years ago

Thanks for updating the status of this influential World War 1 veteran. They are heroic people who bravely fight for our country. You've nicely articulated the importance of this war hero. Keep it up!


Vivenda profile image

Vivenda 7 years ago from UK (South Coast)

Thanks for that hub, Chuck. In the many snippets from interviews I heard after his death I was struck by Harry Patch's eloquence, and the way he told things as they were.


Litany Notch profile image

Litany Notch 7 years ago from South UK

Harry Patch was lovely and I did shed a tear when I heard he was gone. My grandfather also served in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry and was at Passchendaele but he died when I was a child and I never had the opportunity to talk to him about it.


Chuck profile image

Chuck 7 years ago from Tucson, Arizona Author

Joy At Home - thanks for your comments.

My brothers and sisters and I used to enjoy listening to our great uncles' stories about World War I and our Father's stories about his experiences in World War II.

While they were not in the infantry like Harry Patch, they did see combat as one uncle was in the artillery, the other in the engineers and my Father in the Signal Corps. My Father took part in the landings in Leyte and Luzon in the Philippines, both times going ashore within hours of the start of the invasion and landing as soon as the Japanese forces had been pushed off the beech by the first waves of our infantry.

Having researched this article and others I have written and remembering the occasional references to combat in the stories my Father and uncles told us, I think that they saw and experienced a lot more than they shared with us which makes me even more awed by what they had to endure.

Thanks again for your comments.

Chuck


Joy At Home profile image

Joy At Home 7 years ago from United States

Thank you for this hub...it was most informative. I had never understood until now why diagnosing shell shock as an illness was so important. I had no idea men were shot over the issue.

It is sad to me that there weren't (and aren't) more men who thought their stories were worth hearing. Of course, if I'd been in combat, I'm not sure I'd want to talk about it, either. But I loved my grandpa's war stories (WWII).

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