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Monday, 22 December 2014

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The politicians should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves

Harry Patch died in his home county of Somerset in July 2009. He was 111 years and 38 days old and was credited with being the last surviving soldier to have fought in the First World War.

Harry Patch photo
Harry Patch

His recollections of the trenches, Harry’s thoughts on the Great War’s purpose and its appalling death toll were recorded faithfully.

They may not gel easily with this emotionally-charged week of commemoration but they deserve as much attention as is being given to current-day world leaders and politicians, keen to promote and exploit a public mood of remembrance. In fact they deserve more.

“It wasn’t worth it,” Harry said. “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.”

In marking the centenary of a war promised to end all wars, we give thanks for the sacrifice that secured our country’s freedom from one power-hungry nation’s domination over all Europe.

We have duty and cause to be grateful. We are troubled only by little worries – in comparison with those who were forced to come to terms with losing a generation of young men. Boys who left home on their first adventure, entered the jaws of hell and didn’t return.

Harry Patch never came to terms with the price paid by ordinary – misled – youngsters, who died in conditions of horror they couldn’t have imagined during youthful years of safety, at home with their mothers.

He said, shortly before his death: “I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

Harry, in common with tens of thousands of men, lost friends who had become his family in the trenches.

“September 22nd, half-past ten at night. That’s when I lost them. That’s my Remembrance Day. Armistice Day, you remember the thousands of others who died. For what? For nothing.”

He was in a nursing home at the end, with long periods to reflect on a life that had been brave, filled with pain, loss. A life spared to teach us important lessons.

“Opposite my bedroom there is a window and there is a light over the top,” he said.

“Now [when the staff go into that room] they put the light on. If I was half asleep – the light coming on was the flash of a bomb. That flash brought it all back.

“For 80 years I’ve never watched a war film, I never spoke of it, not to my wife. For six years, I’ve been here [in the nursing home]. Six years it’s been nothing but World War One. As I say, World War One is history, it isn’t news. Forget it.”

We won’t. We can’t. We must not forget it. But in commemoration, our remembrance should be for the boys and men who died in their millions. Boys and men who – like Harry – never quite believed the rhetoric, once they’d experienced the reality.

The Great War didn’t end all wars. Nowhere close. That too was a false promise. Wars are raging across the world now claiming the lives of innocent civilians and children in large numbers.

World leaders and politicians talk the talk of sympathy and concern but stop short of anything that makes a difference. Wars make money – lots of it. Our country is the second largest arms dealer in the world.

At time of writing, we are being asked to turn out our lights in tribute to those who fought valiantly in a world war to safeguard our freedom and way of life.

I’ll turn down the lamps for men like Harry Patch, who knew immediately they reached the battlefield that they’d been led like lambs to the slaughter.

For them and for all those who are still slaughtered in the cruel, unnecessary but lucrative atrocities of war, I’ll light a candle. For them and only for them.

With thanks to BBC History online archive interview with the late Harry Patch.

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