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Harry Patch in profile
At 111, Harry Patch was the oldest person in Britain and the last surviving Tommy. But despite his wealth of experience, Harry said he’s determined to look forwards and not backwards.
Harry worked as a plumber after the war
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“It doesn’t do to go back, the memories are so, what shall I say, so sad.”
He's a national hero and embodies the sacrifice made by thousands of British troops who fought on the Western Front in the First World War. Harry puts his long life down to clean living.
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.”
It took Harry more than 80 years to break his silence about his experiences in the war.
As a coping mechanism in the trenches, he used to make up alternative endings for nursery rhymes.
And off the top of his head he came up with this: “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jill forgot to take her pill and now she’s got a daughter.”
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.
Growing up in Somerset
Harry was born in Somerset in 1898 the youngest of three brothers.
He was christened Henry John Patch and named after his uncle Harry who was a professional gardener in Weston-super-Mare.
Harry first attracted media attention in 1992 but it wasn’t for his role in the trenches.
That connection wasn’t made until several years later when the number of surviving WWI veterans significantly began to dwindle.
Like many of his generation he was reluctant to speak about his war time experience and had maintained a silence for 80 years.
He got his first mention in a local paper at the age of 92 for helping Bath City Council to explore a disused limestone quarry it didn’t know existed.
He had always been interested in history, but his knowledge of the sealed mine came from playing there as a boy growing up in Combe Down.
In his autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, Harry said his parents didn’t think he was as bright as his eldest brother George who went to the fee- paying school in nearby Monkton Combe.
Instead, Harry went to the CofE village school where he became a choir boy and winger for the school rugby team. He recalled many happy days running through fruit orchards
He said he dreamed of becoming an engine driver and was also a passionate rower and used to compete against Monkton Combe College.
His father was a master stonemason and all three sons followed him into the building trade. George became a cabinet maker, William was a bricklayer and Harry was training to be a plumber when the war broke out.
Harry’s aversion to war
Harry didn’t want to join up and waited until military conscription was enforced before enrolling.
At the start of the war Harry advanced quickly in his trade, because the army had lured many able bodied plumbers away.
In his autobiography he said: “Somerset people are not warlike- it is not something in our make-up.
“I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to.
“When it came, army life didn’t appeal to me at all and when I found out how rough and tumble it could be, I liked it even less.
“I mean, why should I go out and kill somebody I never knew and for what reason? I wasn’t at all patriotic. I went and did what was asked of me and no more.”
Harry said he knew what to expect because his middle brother William had fought in the first battle in Ypres. William had been sent home after being shot in the leg with shrapnel digging the trenches where Harry was later to serve.
Harry began his army training in 1917 and was recruited in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry as a Lewis gunner assistant. His role was to carry and assemble the spare parts for the machine gun and to make sure it worked.
He spent four months as a private in Ypres from June to September.
On 22 September a light shell, known as a Whizz Bang, exploded above his head killing three members of his team. Harry was pierced by shrapnel in the lower abdomen region but survived.
He was very close to his team mates and said: “I’d taken an absolute liking to the men in the team, you could almost say love.” September 22 is his personal remembrance day.
Harry has always had a strong Christian Faith but said he struggled for a while after the death of his friends, believing himself agnostic at one point.
In 1918 Harry met and married his wife Ada Billington.
He was stationed in a convalescence unit in Sutton Coldfield and met Ada in the street coming down the steps from the cinema.
Harry was running for a bus and knocked her over. They were married for 58 years and had two sons Dennis and Roy.
After the war Harry returned to plumbing in Somerset and worked for his father.
Notably he worked on the roof of the Wills Memorial Building in Park Street, Bristol.
He sat his professional exams and started his own plumbing business in Bath.
Harry was 41 and living in Compton Dundon when World War II started. He was considered too old to fight and became a maintenance manager at a US army camp in Somerset and joined the Auxiliary Fire Service in Bath.
As part of the AFS he attended four air raids, one in Bath, two in Bristol and one in Weston.
At the end of the war he moved his family to Preston Grove in Yeovil and worked for ER Carter in West Henford, never letting onto his colleagues that he had served in WWI.
Harry retired from plumbing in 1963 and enjoyed pottering in his garden at home until his wife died in 1976 aged 81 following a massive stroke.
Last man standing
Their eldest son Dennis, an accountant, started drinking heavily after Ada’s death even selling Harry’s war medals to finance the habit.
In 1980 Harry moved to Wells and re-married a widow called Jean.
Dennis died shortly after from liver failure aged 65 and Jean died of cancer in 1984.
Harry also outlived his younger son Roy, a builder, who died in 2002.
In 1999 Harry received the Legion D’Honneur medal awarded by the French government to around 350 surviving WWI veterans who fought on the Western Front.
He dedicated the award to the memory of his three friends who didn’t make it.
After his name was published on the honours list in the national press, reporters began to show more of an interest in Harry’s story.
They eventually persuaded him to break his silence about his experience of the war.
It became apparent that he was a good speaker and he was invited to be a speaker at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 2001.
As the number of veterans dwindled Harry’s fame grew. He has launched numerous poppy appeals, become an agony uncle columnist for lads magazine FHM, had his portrait painted by the artist and former England wicket keeper, Jack Russell, and had a special edition cider named after him. In 2004 Shepton Mallet based Gaymer Cider Company brought out 106 bottles of Patch Pride as a tribute for each year of Harry’s life.
Long Live Harry
The press has frequently suggested the idea of a state funeral for Britain’s last WWI veteran. But when asked in 2007 how he would like to be remembered, Harry rejected the idea of any special arrangements for him, but accepted the principle of a state funeral as a mark of respect for the generation who fought in WWI.
Harry said his personal wish was to be buried in a private ceremony alongside his family in Monkton Combe Church where his parents were married and his parents and brothers are buried.
At the age of 105 Henry re-visited the Ypres battle field and in 2004 he returned for a BBC series to meet a German veteran Charles Kuentz.
In 2003 Henry met his third wife Doris who lived in the same retirement home in Wells. Harry donated £29,000 to the RNLI for a lifeboat, which he dedicated to Doris’ memory who died in 2007.
In 2009, Harry was made an Officer of the French Legion of Honour.
When interviewed for BBC Somerset Harry said he put his long life down to his desire to keep out of arguments.
His friends attributed it to his strong Christian beliefs, on which he based his life and which they said had probably helped to sustain him.
last updated: 25/07/2009 at 15:55