When the bells of Wells rang 111 times for Harry Patch.
IT WAS by chance that we found ourselves arriving at 12.30pm in Britain's smallest city on Thursday. The streets were deserted save for a few stewards in florescent yellow waistcoats obviously wondering if we were late. For, if we had arrived an hour earlier, we would have heard the ancient bells of the mediaeval cathedral peal exactly 111 times. A ring for every year of the life of Harry Patch: Britain's 'Last Tommy' and the only remaining survivor of the 'Great War' and its trenches.
But like my grandfather, and no doubt many men of his generation, he thought it neither great nor glorious. My grandfather refused to ever talk about his experiences, save to say that his memories were too painful and that too many kids had died for nothing. He, like Harry, had been part of the fighting fodder that lost 300,000 young lives only to gain five miles of Flanders fields.
Harry Patch was reluctantly seduced to speak about his 'war' by the BBC when they discovered he was one of the surviving few on a programme called 'Veterans' in 1998. He had, by then, become an ardent pacifist and was quoted as saying,' war isn't worth a single life'. It wasn't without poignancy that he chose the lines of the song made famous by Marlene Dietrich in his memorial service, 'When will they ever learn?'
Yet, as we drove in driving rain over the army ranges of Salisbury plain away from the thousands gathered for his farewell last week, it felt little had changed. The radio reminded us of another teenager's death in Afghanistan and Harry's words written in his autobiography, "All those young lives lost in a war which ended across a table. Where's the sense in that?" came to haunt us.
At one hundred and eleven, Patch had not only seen his comrades, all those years ago, die but he had also outlived his own children. Recently, the Oxford base, Radiohead re-released their song written with his words in tribute, 'give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves'. Naive, perhaps, but you felt Harry had earned the right to look back across the years and question the policies of politicians still so cavalier with young lives.
As the bell rang out last week across the lush English countryside, insistent note after insistent note, it was the words of John Donne that I remembered:
'Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.'
For, as the last post sounded for Harry, and the final voice from the soldiers of the 1918 trenches was silent, he made it clear that it was not poppies and pomp that he wanted, but assurance we could learn from our past and avoid needless young deaths again, that their sacrifice really could have been 'the war to end all wars'.
Copyright Cyprus Mail 2009
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|Publication:||Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)|
|Date:||Aug 8, 2009|
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