"I've never got over it"
July 12, 2007 6:12 PM   Subscribe

"Henry John Patch would be notable simply by virtue of his 109 years on earth... But Harry Patch is more than a gerontological phenomenon. The man arranging his medals and sitting up straight for a photograph in the conservatory of a nursing home in Wells is the last British man alive to have served in the trenches during the First World War."
posted by mr_crash_davis (26 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
he's so alert still too! cool... thanks, crash

I can't imagine how completely unprepared all those kids were for WW1...i think soldiers in later wars had a better idea of what it was like, if also idealized....ugh (and it's one of our species' great shames that "the war to end all wars" didn't do so at all, but merely ushered in a horrendously deadly century drenched in blood and bodies)
posted by amberglow at 6:28 PM on July 12, 2007

Canada is down to its last two, after our oldest (at 107), Lloyd Clemett, passed on in February. There's been talk of a state funeral for the last surviving vet, but none of the three (including Clamett) want one.
posted by mendel at 6:33 PM on July 12, 2007

Between the start of the campaign on July 31 and its end on November 8, an average of 5,000 men a day were killed or wounded, and all for the capture of a few miles of desecrated land.

Wow, I've read the casualty stats for WWI before but they are still hard to believe. That's a whole city's worth of soldiers every month. Tough to wrap your head around numbers like that, even harder to imagine living through it.
posted by octothorpe at 6:40 PM on July 12, 2007

This is interesting, about women who served in the Signal Corps as bilingual telephone operators. (the only other women serving were nurses)
posted by amberglow at 6:40 PM on July 12, 2007

I've read that, particularly in Europe, lots of people have gone back to calling it "The Great War" rather than "World War I" in recognition of the unparalled social and psychological upheaval the war caused. The Great War shattered the European world in way that no other war has done, before or since, on any part of the globe.

"I sit there and think. And some nights I dream - of that first battle. I can't forget it" ... "I've never got over it. You never forget it. Never."

One of my favorite - in the sense of most prescient - quotes ever: "The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime." - Edward Grey, 1st Viscount Grey of Fallodon
posted by Justinian at 6:41 PM on July 12, 2007

Wow, I've read the casualty stats for WWI before but they are still hard to believe. That's a whole city's worth of soldiers every month. Tough to wrap your head around numbers like that, even harder to imagine living through it.

octothorpe - Read about the first day of the Battle of the Somme sometime, if you haven't. There were almost 60,000 British casualties alone. Sixty thousand, from one nationality. I can't imagine it.
posted by Justinian at 6:43 PM on July 12, 2007

That makes sense, Justinian--it really did change everything, and how the aftermath was handled led everyone right into WW2, almost inevitably, i think.
posted by amberglow at 6:44 PM on July 12, 2007

Mendel: the article you cite from Jan 2007 shows Percy Wilson and John Babcock as the surviving Canadian veterans. However, Percy Wilson died in May 2007.

John Babcock
sounds a bit, uh, colorful.
posted by A-Train at 7:00 PM on July 12, 2007

For comparison, the single bloodiest battle day in American history was the Battle of Antietam which saw about 3600 dead (25,000 dead and injured), combined from both sides.
posted by stbalbach at 7:01 PM on July 12, 2007

Octothorpe: for sustained high casualties, check the Battle of Stalingrad. One and a half million casualties in 165 days -- 9090 per day.

As long as we are going to be awed by this kind of thing, little known fact: USA not in the top 5 for military deaths in WWII, not in the top 15 for civilian and military deaths in WWII. There are some unexpected countries ahead: Indonesia, India, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, French indo-China. Russia and China are 60% of the total deaths in that war.

posted by A-Train at 7:11 PM on July 12, 2007

Australia lost its last active veteran in 2005.
Mr Allan said a few years before he died: "I was too young to realise what I was doing."
posted by tellurian at 7:12 PM on July 12, 2007

Good work, crash; I almost posted this last night but figured it would get deleted.
posted by orthogonality at 7:32 PM on July 12, 2007

Je me souviens.
posted by furtive at 7:43 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great article. The last two paragraphs are quite powerful.
posted by Tim McDonough at 7:59 PM on July 12, 2007

amen, tim. thanks for posting mr. crash.
posted by aquanaut at 8:14 PM on July 12, 2007

Fascinating article. He looks good for his age, not a day over 85.
posted by Blingo at 8:20 PM on July 12, 2007

While on the subject, if you're in the mood to sense just what the world felt like during 1914 in the run up and first month of the war, I simply cannot recommend enough The Guns of August.

Utterly brilliant book. One of the best war histories you'll read on the lead up, causes, characters, personalities and politics at play.
posted by tgrundke at 8:33 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

That Kaiser fellow sounds like a real asshole.

I agree with tgrundke's recommendation, but I suggest reading The Proud Tower first, as it is at least chronologically the prequel. Both are terrific books.

Chase both of Tuchman's works with Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World. It is similar in style and focus and at least equal in terms of readability.

Great personalities in those books. Giants walked the earth then.
posted by Slap Factory at 8:42 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anaversery of Paschendale today.

The Germans lost about 250,000 lives and the British 300,000 of whom 36,500 were Australian. 90,000 British or Australian bodies were never identified, 42,000 were never recovered; these had been blown to bits or had drowned in the dreadful morass.

Over 16 000 Candians were lost, but they were "lucky" in one sense. Gen Curry refused to commit more Canadian forces to what he knew would be a disaster.
posted by mattoxic at 9:01 PM on July 12, 2007

little known fact: USA not in the top 5 for military deaths in WWII, not in the top 15 for civilian and military deaths in WWII.

That's interesting.

My country, New Zealand, supposedly had the highest casualty rate per capita of any nation in WWI (and in WWII, twice as high as Australia or Canada). I often wonder if that's the reason for the pronounced local pacifist streak, and various other little peculiarities in the national psyche.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:42 PM on July 12, 2007

My grandfather was in a US Marine machine gun company (8th, 5th reg.) that fought at Belleau Wood. He died in the early 40s, thirty odd years before I was born. In total I had two stories about him passed down to me and both revolved around the Great War: his greatest exploit during the war (which I'm trying to confirm), and how he met my grandmother at a French field hospital after being injured on the front.

I've been trying to learn more about him during that time period and reading reports from the battles and it's just mind boggling the number of deaths that occur. For instance, I don't know when my grandfather was injured but I know it was before or on 10/4/1918 because that was the day his whole company (~170 troops) became casualties. I'm guessing he was one of them.

The reports reveal a lot about how bad things where too. 2nd battalion commander, Wise, did an a - w lessons learned report after Belleau Wood with tidbits like:

c - the enemy gives no trouble at all after you are at bayonet range, and is only too willing to surrender.
n- In thick cover and when machine guns nests were run into if prisoners were available one in front of a man secured many machine guns as they would not shoot on their own men.
v - the enemy have a very irritating substance in their high explosives which a mask won't stop. It is not dangerous but makes you get out a small dugout, as the gas causes a store throat, sneezing and eye irritation.

He closes with "In ending this report I wish it to be clearly understood that I am giving what information I consider might be of value and most of it comes from personal observations are most of my officers were casualties and I have not the benefit of their views. All of my losses were caused by rifle or shell fire as we had no gas with the exception of 12 cases, and I left COURCELLES with 965 effective men and 26 officers in the companies [June 2nd -Jay] and lost 615 men and 19 officers [June 18th -Jay]."

Harry Patch was a Machine Gunner just like my grandfather. Thanks for posting this crash.
posted by jwells at 4:33 AM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Great article—thanks for the post.
posted by languagehat at 6:44 AM on July 13, 2007

"I fell in a trench. There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last 60 seconds of his life. He only said one word: 'Mother'. I didn't see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God's presence.

"I've never got over it. You never forget it. Never."

posted by hadjiboy at 9:38 AM on July 13, 2007

He's very handsome.
posted by Shakeer at 10:24 AM on July 13, 2007

Wikipedia, of course, has a list.
posted by dhartung at 1:50 PM on July 13, 2007

The British Empire suffered 500,000 dead and wounded during the three months of Third Ypres

That's 1% of the population of England. Didn't break it down to percentage of "marriageable" men, but jeezus, if they killed all the young men, who made the babies after the war.

And we keep doing it. What the hell is wrong with the human race.
posted by nax at 3:04 PM on July 13, 2007

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