On the Deaths Of
Henry Allingham and Harry Patch
The deaths in July of these two WW1 soldiers, once again brings us back to that question, is there a force unseen, unknown, that has a control over our lives. Then fate or destiny would just be words, whose meaning resembles nothing more than the image of us when looked upon from far above. Because I’ve truly witnessed so many strange things in my life, every time a curious situation arises, like these two guys passing one hundred, I ask myself this question to see how I rationalise it. With the death of Henry Allingham at the ripe old age of 113, also becoming the oldest man in the world before he died and Harry Patch at the age of 111. The World is left now with only one survivor of WW1; Claude Choules aged 108, a British Veteran who lives in Australia, who saw action in the North Sea.
I have to remark on how much of an honour it is to be chronicling the final history of Henry and Patch, to do a story on the Planet Stompers. When I saw the news a story jumped out at me and I felt that the time was appropriate, as when the last man standing to have seen action, Claude Choules, leaves us, it could well be, that we might be busying ourselves in some far corner of the World. I’ve never been that sort, with great political views, so I won’t be divining my story by explaining why the First World War started and what I think should have happened, all meaningless. Since, if you want to know anything, as a matter of history it’s all in the books and you can make your own opinion. As I’ve got older it has become more of an interest to me, the actual men or women who have survived a tragedy or a travesty like WW1 to tell a story. For whatever can be said, I’m sure that there are many who would change what they did, turn the clock back. Just picture saving you’re brother or father, who fell beside you on The Somme, instead of the actual memory. The feeling in your stomach as you charged on, watching the life taken from family or friend. So while thinking about other forces having a control on our lives, first of all I question longevity, for in the name of everything Holy, there must have been something in the water they drunk back then, which allows somebody to live to the over ripe age of a 113.
When the Brother and I were boys in the early seventies, a fact that growing up in Northern Ireland was difficult may have caused a distraction but all of our grandparents and great grandparents lived far enough away that our parents wouldn’t have let us walk round to them, anyway. This was certainly a loss but the first funeral that the Brother and I went to was back in 1970 or 71, it was our Great Grandmother on our Mother’s side and along with the house being very old, they were still presenting the dead in an open casket in the parlour, I had nightmares for weeks after that, seeing that old woman in a coffin. The thing is that this old lady and the old boy with snowy white hair, for what there was of it, sitting alone in the corner of the living room, were our Great Grandparents. As young boys all we wanted to do was play and other relatives attempted to make things not too unpleasant for us, of course there was the moment when somebody said to us.
“Are you boys not going to go in and say hello to your Great Grandpa”
But of course, we didn’t really know this old guy, a little old man in his late eighties, who seemed so lonely, and as I remember back, there wasn’t a TV in the house only a radio and when I think about it now. What did they do with themselves all day? The old boy sitting there in his chair a prisoner to time and the ticking of an old clock and with the glimpse of a little backyard and a tiny little kitchen, nothing must have changed in that house, neither room which was cast in shadows, nor view of the little backyard, in a time that seemed like forever for two boys. I approached him and touched him on the shoulder but he never moved, he was so still that I called my Mother to see if he was alright. From what I remember he seemed to be in some sort of place where grief couldn’t reach him, although it did feel like he didn’t want all these people around but I was really too young to understand any of that. It was years later that I found out that he was a Veteran of The First World War and had been too old to serve in The Second. That little grey haired man. Who, incidentally, quietly died in my mother’s arms of old age only a little while after the death of his wife.
Around about the same time there was my Father’s Father. His story came to me and Steve, when our curiosity was at its peak, the curiosity of young children. We were of that age that we wanted to ask questions about every bloody thing, yet, the one time that I said something, it might have worked for my Dad had gone into the Kitchen, he didn’t like us asking those questions, and was gone long enough but all that my Grandpa would say was:
“Let’s not talk about that.”
While he showed me his Medals and distracted me with a lot of old pennies, which he kept in a drawer just for me. However, my Dad was soon back and on the scene and that was the end of that. Our Father’s, Father was a small man, normally, in comparison to my Mother’s Grandfather and old age, nevertheless for all of that, he had seen both World Wars, the Army in the first and the Navy in the Second, measuring 5 foot 6 inches. He made his own footwear until the end of his days and they were very well looked after but his special pair were too small for any of his son’s, on his death. He lied to get into the Army and joined at the age of fourteen. Although I have no knowledge of any conflicts that he was in but some years later when watching one those Classic John Mills war Films, for which I forget the name. A ship was sinking and just when everybody was being told to abandon ship, they spoke about getting our Grandfather off first. His house was a small one too and likely enough my Father’s parents had lived there during or even before the Second World War. One day I was making my way into the kitchen, ducking down to get through the kitchen door, when I kicked something that was being used as a door stop.
“Hey! Don’t kick my War rations.” He said with a smile.
I had no idea what this big black monstrosity was; it looked like a big piece of rubber, so I bent down to check it out. It was the size of a small luggage bag.
“What is it!?” I said with furrowed brow.
“That’s my chewing Tobacco”
And he cut a whack off, offered me a bite which I refused, then started chewing away.
He died in 1975 aged 75. Finally giving over to one of his War injuries, an indented chest which he had received from a Mule kick, in the Trenches of The First World War. His other injury had caused him to have a pin put in his hip and as a result he could swing his left leg round in a full circle. One could say like in true War style, like you see in those old war films, the soldier is wounded and he’s on his last legs. Or the enemy is about to put the hero in front of the Firing Squad and the soldier asks for one last smoke. One last puff in his favourite chair, in front of the fire and he just fell forward. As I’ve said the Brother and I never got to see that much of those Grandparents because they were too far away. Those two relatives though were our first encounter with history.
Earlier I questioned longevity, what kept these old boys around for so long. However, maybe Harry Patch said it best for his day.
He said: “I neither smoke, drink nor gamble. The three sins, leave them alone. For many years in Shropshire, I lived quite close to the Welsh mountains. Fresh air, no petrol and no cars, that’s the secret.”
Harry was the last surviving British soldier to have served in the third battle of Ypres (the battle of Passchendaele) in which more than 70,000 British troops died.
His life as a Tommy has been well documented by local, national and international media and press, including a documentary on BBC1 called The Last Tommy. Harry was born in Somerset in 1898 the youngest of three brothers.
Mr Allingham, born in 1896, became the world's oldest man. Mr Allingham, whose life has spanned three centuries and six monarchs, has five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild. Mr Allingham joined the Royal Navy Air Service in September 1915 and served in Ypres before transferring to the RAF on its creation in April 1918.
I ponder next, a further contradiction to longevity, penicillin was not properly discovered and in production until nearing the end of the Second World War. So, all of the injuries which you could have received on the front line had every chance of killing you as much as any battle, dying instead from infection while laying in Hospital bed. Then on top of all that the Spanish Flu of 1918, killed millions. It’s these facts which I think, if anything could, confirm the existence of forces unknown and unseen that control are lives.
Today I can’t help also feeling that the world is turning back round on itself, to some other horrific history, yet will there be any of us alive to be witnesses of that future. In respect of this thinking I example, Swine Flu, Global Warming and then whether we have the proof that the last one is related to the crisis we are having with the Bees. The Bees are dying by their thousands and they say, if ever the day comes that there will be no Bees, then we’re in a lot of trouble. It’s the same with these WW1 boys; they have been what I can only describe, for want of a better term, a stabile reminder of this history, while also being a physical anomaly. What kind of trouble could we be in, when there are no more witnesses to the greatest travesty of our time, only the history books left.
When the Brother and I left home, maybe we had a few sandwiches but one thing is for sure we were well feed the night before. It was a life changing move we were making and we were crammed with the usual thoughts of doubt but we only had the road ahead of us. Finally our familiar friend became the streets, an enormous home, where only sickness had us longing for the real thing. However, home by this time had become such a distant memory, in comparison to our day to day struggles and would have cured us of nothing. This was our empathy to the common ground of a soldier. Nevertheless, we could never imagine the thoughts going through a young soldiers mind in that day, where finally greyness and death were their familiar realisation, lost in the unconscious longing for the end. To leave this friend, a mucky blood soaked field, and go home.
So, from all those who will be Planet Stompers and innovative, we honour you, with the blessing of light with a kindred spirit and forever the true comradeship of a brother. Sleep peacefully on that last day.