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Private Henry ‘Harry’ Patch, 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry
The Last Great War Veteran to have fought on the western front
Brought up in the village of Combe Down in the heart of Somerset, Harry Patch went on to become one of the best known of all Great War veterans. He was the last living veteran to serve in the trenches and the last surviving man to go over the top and to be wounded in action.
Born on 17 June 1898, Harry came from a comfortably well-off family. His father was a builder and the three sons were expected to follow in the family business. Harry trained to be a plumber but his career was interrupted by the war and he was conscripted in October 1916: a brother who had served in France until he was wounded told Harry what he could expect to face.
Harry embarked for France in June 1917 and was sent to join a Lewis machine gun team that was one man short. Serving in the Ypres Salient in the summer months, he memorably went over the top on 16 August in the fighting for Langemarck.
He was wounded six weeks later when a shell killed three of his friends and severely injured Harry in the stomach. He returned to Britain and hospital and was only just fit again when the Armistice was announced.
Harry returned to plumbing. He married and had two sons both of whom predeceased him. Harry was the last veteran to visit the Western Front in 2008 and opened a memorial to his comrades at the point where his battalion had attacked in 1917. Harry died in 2009 aged 111. His autobiography The Last Fighting Tommy has sold nearly 350,000 copies.
At Ypres the land was low lying and the water table very high. It was only possible to dig down a foot or two before hitting water, and as such it reminded me very much of the Somerset Levels where I grew up. The trenches were hardly below ground at all, and most of the protection was a breastwork built above ground level.
The conditions were frequently awful. I quickly got used to sitting on the firing step with my feet up against the trench wall opposite, watching the water flowing underneath the duckboards.
Where the floor was particularly bad, we used to get an empty box of ammunition and stand on it until it gradually sank in the mud, when you’d put another on top and stand on that. The ground was absolutely full of boxes lost in the mud.
Water and sanitation
Despite all the rain, there was little fresh water in the front line, as everything we needed had to be carried up. Ration parties would bring the water up in petrol cans, which were rarely washed out.
There was a standing joke that if you were out there long enough you could tell the difference in taste as to whether the water came in a British Petroleum or a Shell can.
Washing was almost impossible. Behind the support lines, if you were lucky, you might find an old shell hole where the mud had gradually settled, and, the top of the water being reasonably clear, you would get a wash in that. In the trenches you might get a little lukewarm tea from which you might save a drop to have a shave, but washing in the conventional sense was out of the question.
The army did provide baths well behind the lines, but I never got the chance to bathe. Indeed, from the time I landed in France in June until I came away in September, I never had a bath, and I never had any clean clothes.
There was no sanitation at all, and the place used to stink like hell. The latrine was a little recess somewhere in the trench with a piece of wood across it to sit on. Toilet roll was a bit of torn-up Punch magazine or newspaper.
Sentry duty at night
I served at Ypres during the summer; what it was like in the winter I hate to think. But even in the summer it was chilly, too, with occasional storms and frequent squally showers.
Between three and five in the morning it would get very cold, and you’d do what you could to keep yourself warm, clapping your hands together, moving your feet about, or, if you weren’t on watch, moving up and down the trench. The night seemed endless, but then if the sun came out you were all right and as the sun rose, so your spirits rose a little, too.
We took it in turns to keep lookout at night. You stood on the firestep and, if you saw anything you thought was a German working party, you would nudge a friend:
‘What do you think?’
Any doubt and we would report what we’d seen, or thought we’d seen, to the officer and he would have a look with his field glasses, to see if anyone was showing a white face or a hand. If he were even a bit doubtful, he would order a star shell to be sent up.
This shell used to break into half a dozen lights, which floated down, shimmering in the night sky, and they lit up the whole area. When it was sent up, we were told always to lean forward and keep our faces well down, with our arms and particularly our hands tucked in under our bodies so that nothing white could be seen.
Peering out from underneath our helmets, we would try and count how many lumps we could see in no man’s land. About five minutes after that light had died, we sent up a Very light, which lit up a much smaller area. Once again we would count; perhaps there would be one lump less, or one more. If we knew that none of our men were out there on patrol, then the officer would say:
‘Right-ho, give them a burst!’
If it was just a bush, then the bush stayed where it was. Bob, as the no.1, would fire half a magazine at them, then, straightaway, we would move from our position down the trench. It was important not to fire a magazine from the same position because the Germans could see the flash from the Lewis Gun and take a bearing on the position.
Firing again from that spot was asking for half a dozen whizz-bangs. While the infantry worked at night, our duty was to carry on watching, watching, watching. Oh yes, the darkness played hell with you, with your eyesight.