Farewell Old Soldiers

Posted by admin | July 31, 2009 0
Armistice Day London 2008

I am hardly a supporter of British Militarism or military adventurism which the Red Tops treat as some jolly jape under the heading of “supporting our boys” or “finishing the job.” This begs the questions, too rarely asked in the same Red Tops, of what are we supporting and what is the job? Indeed I’ve pointed out elsewhere that Britain’s colonial history contains many disgraceful episodes when it acted as the Great Imperial Bully and we have also decidedly mixed feelings in Ireland on this count.


But none of this is in any way to detract from the personal heroism or sacrifice of soldiers in battle and it is right that their bravery is commemorated each year on Armistice Sunday, the service held on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of the fighting in World War 1 at 11.00 am on the 11th November 1918. Indeed when you read the obituaries of those who served in the wars and the enormous responsibilities and decisions they had to undertake at a tender age you somehow feel that those of us whose lives have not been tempered by war have somehow led shallow lives by contrast. However we largely read about those who survive, not those who perished.

Few can have been unmoved by the poignant sight at the last commemoration at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London of three of the last surviving veterans of the First World War joining serving soldiers in current conflicts to mark the 90th anniversary of the day peace returned to Europe. Henry Allingham, 112, Harry Patch, 110, and Bill Stone, 108, led the nation as it remembered the sacrifices made by the 1914-1918 generation. They each represented the armed service they belonged to – for Mr Allingham the Royal Air Force, Mr Patch the Army and Mr Stone the Royal Navy. All three men laid wreaths at the Cenotaph in central London to commemorate Armistice Day. Sadly, but not too surprisingly, all have now died since that ceremony.

Henry Allingham, who was in the Royal Naval Air Service in the war and later with the RAF, was the world’s oldest man when he died 12 days ago aged 113. Since his death, the last WWI veteran in Britain, Harry Patch, has also died. Mr Patch was conscripted into the Army aged 18 and fought in the Battle of Passchendaele at Ypres in 1917 in which more than 70,000 British soldiers died. At the end of the service the bells of St Nicholas’s tolled 113 times, once for each year of his life, and five replica World War One planes – Mr Allingham was the last surviving member of the Royal Naval Air Service and a founder member of the Royal Air Force – performed a flypast.

Henry Allingham, 1896 – 2009

The veteran was being buried with full military honours. Guests included the Duchess of Gloucester; the veterans minister Kevan Jones and senior figures from the Royal Navy and the Air Force. Henry Allingham was, at the age of 113, the world’s oldest man when he died on July 18 and, with Harry Patch, one of Britain’s last two survivors from the Great War. Harry Patch died exactly week later, making Claude Choules, 108, who lives in Australia, the last living British veteran of the war.

Mr Allingham’s medals were carried by two of his 16 great-grandchildren who are both currently serving in the US Navy, his late daughter Jean had gone to America after WW2 as a GI Bride. Outside, a crowd of hundreds watched as the service was relayed on a big screen. Among them was Dennis Goodwin, founder and chair of the First World War Veterans’ Association, who said he would never forget Mr Allingham. “I have been to many veterans’ funerals but this is most special because it coincides with the end of an era.” There are now only three surviving veterans of the First World War, none of them living in the UK.

John Babcock, who turned 109 on 23 July, was with Canada’s Boys Battalion in England but the war ended before he turned 18 and could go to the front.

Frank Buckles, 108, joined the American army aged just 16 and was held in reserve in England from December 1917. After six months he was sent to France but never saw action on the frontline.

Claude Choules, 108, served with the Royal Navy during World War I. Originally from Worcestershire, he now lives in Perth, Australia.

The First World War and the Flu Epidemic of 1918/19 produced a death toll of unimaginable proportion and we should not forget the callousness with which lives were thrown away. Indeed, in a telling indication of the attitude among the General Staff to casualties there were more allied deaths on the morning of 11th November 1918 alone than there were on D-Day in 1944. The respected American author Joseph E Persico has calculated a shocking figure that the final day of WWI would produce nearly 11,000 casualties, more than those killed, wounded or missing on D-Day, when Allied forces landed en masse on the shores of occupied France almost 27 years later. What is worse is that hundreds of these soldiers would lose their lives thrown into action by generals who knew that the Armistice had already been signed. The recklessness of General Wright, of the 89th American Division, is a case in point. Seeing his troops were exhausted and dirty, and hearing there were bathing facilities available in the nearby town of Stenay, he decided to take the town so his men could refresh themselves. “That lunatic decision cost something like 300 casualties, many of them battle deaths, for an inconceivable reason,” says Mr Persico.

Bill Stone, 1900 – 2009

It was with this in mind that I made a personal journey to the battle fields for there were deaths on both sides of my family in that war. Edward Kenny who died with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and my Great Uncle, James McMahon who died with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Beaurevoir in the Ainse 5 weeks before the end of the war in 1918. When I visited James McMahon’s grave I wasn’t expecting to feel a great deal of connection with somebody who died so many years before I was born but being there amongst the graves of so many young Irish soldiers who all died on the 8th October 1918 was surprisingly moving.


Grave of my Great Uncle,
James McMahon,1898 – 1918,
Beaurevoir, France.

We now know that the war to end all wars did nothing of the sort and did little for “small nations” either. It is hard to explain the “Causes of the Great War.” In his weighty book of the same name the historian A.J.P. Taylor cannot come to a definitive conclusion but, as he observes, it was the first truly industrialised war and it was industrialisation which made possible the scale of the awful bloodbath as “Defence was mechanised but attack was not,” The aim of the domino effect of the alliances which clicked robot like into action after the assassinations in Sarajevo was to preserve the established order, “For King and Country” as it was expressed in Britain.

But after the dust had settled there were no more Hapsburgs, Romanoff’s, Hohenzollern’s or Ottomans and the Saxe-Coburg Gotha’s had become “Windsor’s”. The war and the humiliating peace left a legacy of instability both in Europe and in the former Ottoman territories only some of which has been resolved today. It removed a whole generation and those left behind bore deep scars. They included a French Captain, Charles De Gaulle, left for dead by his own side at Verdun in no-man’s land for two days before being taken prisoner by the Germans, an Austrian corporal Adolph Hitler who was gassed and wounded and unemployed after the war in a collapsed German economy who concluded his country was not defeated on the battlefield but by its own lack of willpower and subversive elements on the home front who were not “proper Germans” The novelist J.R. Tolkien was a survivor of the Somme and wrote a mythological parable of the horror and inhumanity of mechanised warfare and a plea for the decency of humanity, “The Lord of the Rings.”

The “Last Tommy” Harry Patch thought that his comrade’s sacrifice had been in vain because what the world achieved was not “Peace in our Time” but rather it set the scene for the conflict of WW11. He expressed himself movingly in interviews in 2004;

“I was taken back to England to convalesce. When the war ended, I don’t know if I was more relieved that we’d won or that I didn’t have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle — thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Herr Kuentz, Germany’s only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We’ve had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it’s a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn’t speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?”

…….”It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it … the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The Second World War – Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it. I would have taken the Kaiser, his son, Hitler and the people on his side … and bloody shot them. Out the way and saved millions of lives. T’isn’t worth it.”


Harry Patch will be buried after a service at Wells Cathedral near Bath this coming Thursday 6th August. A quiet man who did not talk about the war in public until he was 100, he may have been surprised to see that his passing led television and radio bulletins and prompted banner headlines in the Sunday papers. “Too many died… war isn’t news,” he once said. When he is buried with him will go the last living connection to World War 1 and this cataclysmic event will finally be “History”.

No doubt his passing will be marked with full military honours and the greatest respect, as is only right. But, is this Irish Republican alone in thinking that on such a momentous occasion, as a token of respect to all who died, his passing should be marked with nothing less than a full State Funeral? And am I alone in feeling that the Queen should break with convention and attend this last opportunity to honour first hand all those who fought in her Grandfather’s name “For King and Country”? Even a non-royalist would be churlish to suggest she has not always shown good judgement and felt the pulse of the Nation. I cannot imagine that her sound instincts are saying anything to her other than “We shall be there” to say farewell to this remarkable old soldier.

Harry Patch 1898 – 2009

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