How did Harry Patch become an unlikely WW1 hero?

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1. Harry's story

Harry Patch was an ordinary soldier of the First World War. Like many who fought, he was conscripted and sent to the trenches of the Western Front, where he was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

Unlike many, Harry lived on until the age of 111, by which time he had become the last British survivor of the World War One trenches. Despite not talking publicly about his war experiences until late in life, he came to represent the generation of ordinary men who served in the First World War. When he died in 2009, over 1,000 people, including dignitaries from around the world, attended his funeral.

But when war broke out, men like Harry were not seen as heroes-in-waiting. Instead it was a very different type of soldier who captured the public imagination.

2. Men of their time

In 1914, Britain’s recent military record was one of short campaigns abroad. Stirring stories of distinguished leadership and individual valour made national heroes of the commanders and generals who led them.

The valiant defender

As garrison commander at the town of Mafeking during the Boer War in South Africa, Robert Baden-Powell held out for 217 days against an enemy siege. Stories of his exploits were reported back at home and made him famous. Baden-Powell later founded the scouting movement, based on his experiences in South Africa.

The charismatic leader

At the beginning of the First World War, Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener was already famous for leading British forces to a decisive victory in Sudan in 1898. As Secretary of State for war he used his fame and face to front a recruitment campaign to swell the ranks of the armed forces. Thousands would have recognised him, and thousands answered his call.

The sacrificial hero

Rupert Brooke’s poem 'The Soldier' was published in January 1915, with World War One just a few months old. Its famous lines - ‘If I should die, think only this of me: That there's some corner of a foreign field, That is for ever England’ - embodied a noble and classical ideal of sacrifice in war.

3. The changing face of heroism

Representations of war in British art show how ideas of heroism shifted in the early 20th century.

Captain C. J. S. Gough winning the VC, Indian Mutiny, 1857
by Louis William Desanges

Paintings of Victorian military leaders like Captain Gough, shown here during the Indian Mutiny of 1857, often capture them in acts of individual bravery.

National Army Museum

Baden-Powell in Uniform of the South African Constabulary by John Edward Chapman Mathews

Lord Baden-Powell, painted in 1901, is a good example of the heroic Victorian military man.

The Scout Association

Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence (1888–1935), CB, DSO
by James McBey

Although the scale of World War One meant commanders were not often in the midst of battle, charismatic leaders, such as Lawrence of Arabia, were still celebrated, especially in theatres of war beyond the Western Front.

IWM (Imperial War Museums)

First World War: Private Fynn, VC, S. W. Borderers
by Ugo Matania

Acts of individual bravery were less possible in the attrition of the trenches. The anonymous soldier came to represent the everyday heroism of military service in wartime.

Wellcome Library, London

Nurse, Wounded Soldier and Child by William Hatherell

Women were slowly being recognised for their heroism as well.

IWM (Imperial War Museums)

Nurse (1865–1915)
by Raymond Lynde

Like the artistic celebration of great military leaders, Edith Cavell is recognised for her famous acts of bravery in WW1, and her execution by German firing squad in 1915.

Norfolk Museums

A Nurse Tends a Soldier's Arm while Other Soldiers Lie in Bed by John Lavery

But in many paintings, the faces of nurses are not shown. Rather than highlighting individuals, the anonymous heroism of all those who cared for the wounded is acknowledged.

Wellcome Library, London

The Last Tommy – Harry Patch (1898–2009)
by Dan Llywelyn Hall

As he became the last living link with First World War, Harry Patch came to embody a whole generation that fought.

Victoria Art Gallery

4. Harry Patch's medals

Harry Patch's medals

The medals awarded to Harry Patch - from service in World War One to a fireman during the Blitz in World War Two - they tell the story of how, over time, the British Army started to recognise the bravery of more and more people.

5. The new WW1 hero

The stories we tell about the First World War today tell us a lot about how ideas of heroism have changed - and are still changing.

Fragile heroes

Many modern representations of World War One focus on how individuals cope or struggle to cope. They are presented as heroes not because they do valiant or exceptional deeds, but because they endure tremendous suffering.

‘Birdsong’, written by Sebastian Faulks in 1993, tells the story of Stephen Wraysford and Jack Firebrace, an officer and a tunneler beneath the trenches of the Western Front. It focuses on the emotional impact the war had on many of the soldiers who fought in it. Pat Barker's 'Regeneration' trilogy (1991-1995) focuses on how a number of soldiers - including poet Siegried Sassoon - cope with the mental trauma some suffered as a result of trench warfare.

New perspectives

The centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 has provided an opportunity to rethink the way the war is remembered. Storytellers have searched for new perspectives and new kinds of heroes. BBC television drama ‘The Crimson Field’ views the battle in the trenches through the experiences of women working in the hospitals just behind the line. Their sacrifice and service is explored alongside that of the soldiers they treat.

6. Heroes now

The reaction to the deaths and injuries of soldiers in Britain's modern wars, is a testament to just how much the First World War transformed our idea of what makes a hero.

7. Who are the heroes of WW1?

World War One presented many opportunities for individuals to show different kinds heroism. Who should we remember as a World War One hero?

Professor Mary Beard, historian

The idea of “heroism” was invented by the ancient Greeks – who found it as tricky a concept as we do. Could anyone become a hero? Did you have to be long dead to gain the accolade? Could women be heroes? Was heroism seen only in battle, or in everyday life too? Were there heroes among the enemy? This question is raised in Homer’s Iliad –composed almost 3,000 years ago, immortalising the first Great War of history, between Greeks and Trojans.

The Iliad was in my mind when I visited St Symphorien Cemetery – the joint Commonwealth and German burial ground in Belgium. It contains the grave of the first man to be awarded a Victoria Cross in World War One, Lieutenant Maurice Dease; and also the grave of a German soldier, Musketeer Oskar Neimeyer, who died on the same day, after extraordinary feats of bravery. I couldn’t help thinking that – whatever their views on the war in which they served and died - these were heroes, both of them; not to mention, as I feel sure, the sons of heroic mothers.

Dr Stephen Clarke, The Royal British Legion

My selection is a group - stretcher bearers. I come from New Zealand where a stretcher bearer called John Simpson Kirkpatrick and his donkey Duffy are part of the Anzac legend after they made many fearless rescues at Gallipoli. He was killed by machine gun fire.

I have a personal link to stretcher bearers as my great grandfather Sergeant Edward Dillon was in the field ambulance. A diary entry he wrote on 15 September, 1916, shows how he and his unit displayed heroic qualities at The Somme: ‘I got our patient in a shell hole and started to dress the wounds... We just started and Fritz must have spotted us for he played on his machine gun in good style for about twenty minutes, we had our noses well in the mud… The remainder of the squad still searched for wounded soldiers.’

I think the compassion and comradeship that these men showed makes them as much heroes as their bravery under fire does.

Professor Alison Fell, historian

Dr Elsie Inglis was a Scottish doctor and suffragist. In 1914, aged 49 and with 16 years of hospital experience, she offered her services to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), but was turned down because women were to be kept away from the front lines. However, Inglis used this opportunity to set up the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service, which ran field hospitals and dressing stations in France, Serbia, Turkey and Russia. They performed extraordinarily valuable work in some of the most difficult circumstances.

Interned in Serbia, Inglis returned home where she discovered she had cancer, but carried on her work, taking another unit to Russia. She died the day after she returned to Britain in November 1917. Inglis was fighting battles on more than one front during the war: she was fighting to save the lives threatened by wounds and disease, and to prove women doctors could do wartime medical work as well as men.