Today We Remember: Harry Patch, the Last Fighting Tommy
The Last Fighting Tommy
‘Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left.’
The name Harry Patch may well be a familiar one as towards the end of his life, Harry was known as ‘the last fighting Tommy’. He was the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War, from any country, and was known to have fought in the trenches.
Harry was born in Combe Down, Somerset in 1898. He left school in 1913 and became an apprentice plumber in Bath.
In 1916, Harry was conscripted at the age of 18. Unlike many young men his age, Harry hadn’t been keen to go to war and was a conscript rather than a volunteer. His brother was a regular soldier who had been wounded at Mons, so Harry had some idea of what it would be like and did not have his head turned by promises of glory and victory.
Harry fought in the Battle of Passchendaele, which raged from July to November in 1917. When confronted with a German soldier, he shot him in the shoulder, the ankle and the knee, preferring not to kill him if he didn’t have to.
On 22nd September, a date that Harry would later call his own personal Remembrance Day, his unit was hit by a shell. Three of his comrades were killed and Harry sustained shrapnel injuries to the groin. The shrapnel was later removed without anaesthetic, as there was a shortage, he was held down by four men so the doctor could complete the procedure.
Back to Blighty
Due to his injury, Harry was sent home, where he focused on going back to his pre-war life. Too old to fight in the Second World War, Harry worked as a sanitary engineer in military camps and as a fireman in Bath during the Blitz where he dealt with the Baedeker raids in Bath.
Despite this return to his pre-war life, going back to work as a plumber, marry and have children, he refused to discuss his experiences in the war until 1998 when he was 100 years old.
After the death of his second wife, Harry lived in a care home, where the light outside his room as he lay in bed at night gave him nightmares about the bomb that hit his unit, decades later.
Despite the passage of time, Harry remained angry about the war until the day he died. In 2004, 90 years after they had fought on opposing sides, Harry met the last surviving German veteran of the war, Charles Kuentz, in Ypres, where they discussed their pacifism.
After giving his first interview at 100, Harry continued to share the unvarnished truth of what trench warfare had been like. He talked about the lice and filth of the trenches and his memory of a dying boy he had come across, whose last word had been ‘Mother’.
‘I’ve never got over it,’ he said. ‘You never forget it. Never.’