It’s been some weeks since the lives of two of the world’s oldest men came to a close. I’ve been out of the country a good deal recently and missed the chance to comment on Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, both veterans of ‘the war to end all wars‘. However, this morning, I noticed that the Hackney Gazette carried a story that Hackney Council is going to name a street after Allingham as he was born, like me, in Clapton.
I never met Allingham but I photographed Patch years ago for a Swiss Magazine whose name I’m afraid escapes me. Without criticism, it was Patch, buried without the military pomp that intrigued me more.
What stuck me about him was that he was a very, very ordinary man that by dint of a genetic fluke had lived on to become, very reluctantly, a living symbol of the Great War. An everyman. The Last Tommy. He seemed to me almost guilty about surviving and I suppose that isn’t uncommon for veterans who have seen their comrades fall. What was extraordinary was that he never spoke about the war until he was 100. When he did speak about it, it was to condemn utterly the futility and cruelty of what he had seen. I remember him, rasping in a soft, slow West country burr, how when he and his comrades were forced to open up on advancing Germans, they’d made a pact to try and shoot for their legs in order to avoid killing them. That to me seemed absurdly brave. His criticism of war (recently enshrined in a tribute by the band Radiohead) was no less telling. ‘Give your leaders each a gun and let them fight it out themselves…”.
nb. The title refers to a line from Carol Anne Duffy‘s poem, ‘The Last Post‘ and is a reference to Wilfred Owen‘s quoting of Horace‘s words, “Dolce et Decorum est pro paria mori” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country”).