Harry Patch took part in the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, but for decades, he did not speak of his service and what he had seen. However at the age of 100, he began sharing his story of the war and would come to be known as ‘The Last Fighting Tommy’.
Born on 17 June 1898 as Henry John in Combe Down Somerset, Patch was conscripted to the army and served with the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. His brother William had served with the Royal Engineers and had told him what trench life was like.
“I knew what I was going to. A lot of people didn’t and when they got to France they had a rude awakening,” he recalled.
In 1917, Patch and his regiment were part of the Third Battle of Ypres and he was at the Battle of Langemarck on August 16. The British attacked in terrible conditions and suffered heavy casualties. In 2008, Patch had a stone erected near Langemarck in memory of his fallen comrades and to “honour the courage, sacrifice and passing of the Great War generation”.
On 22 September 1917, Patch and his Lewis Gun team were caught under an exploding German shell. The blast killed three of his friends and injured him seriously.
“All I can remember was a flash, I went down, blew me down I suppose, I saw the blood; I had a field dressing on. I must have passed out. How long I lay there I don’t know,” he wrote in his book years later.
He was sent home for treatment and to recover from his wounds. He would not return to the battlefield – when the armistice was signed in November 1918, he was still recuperating.
After the war, he worked as a plumber, having completed an apprenticeship before being conscripted. During the Second World War, Patch also became a part time firefighter in Bath as he was one year over the conscription age. He had two sons but outlived both of them.
In 1998, Patch started speaking out about his wartime experiences – 70 years after the war had ended the number of veterans who were still alive was dwindling and he became a well known face. He began talking to journalists, wrote his autobiography and even started writing an advice column for a magazine. In 2005, he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bristol.
He returned to Belgium in 2007 ahead of the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele and told journalists: “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life.”
Patch died on the July 25 2009, aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day, His death meant that there was no longer any surviving British soldiers who had fought in the trenches of the First World War – that experience had passed from living memory.
His words of warning about the reality of war inspired Thom Yorke of Radiohead to write a song called Harry Patch and poet Carol Ann Duffy’s wrote a poem Last Post to mark his death and that of fellow veteran Henry Allingham.