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Patch, Henry John [Harry] (1898–2009), soldier and plumber, and longest surviving British veteran of the First World War, was born on 17 June 1898 at Fonthill Cottage, Combe Down, Somerset, the youngest of three sons (there were no daughters) of William John Patch (1863–1945), master stonemason, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, née Morris (1875–1951). He left school at fourteen to start a plumbing apprenticeship with Jacob Long & Sons, one of the area's leading builders, and had no inclination whatever to volunteer for service when war was declared two years later. Instead he continued his apprenticeship and studied for the examination of the London Guild of Registered Plumbers, which he passed towards the end of 1915. The following year conscription was introduced and he was called up in October. ‘I didn't want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to’, he recalled. ‘I wasn't at all patriotic. I went and did what was asked of me and no more’ (Patch and van Emden, 59).

In June 1917 Patch embarked for France, where he was drafted to the 7th battalion of the Duke of York's light infantry as a Lewis-gunner. Lewis-gun teams consisted of five men: Patch was no. 2, whose responsibility was to carry spare parts, including a heavy additional barrel, so that if the gun became damaged it could be quickly repaired in situ. Towards the end of July, the regiment moved into the front line to take part in the third battle of Ypres, otherwise known as Passchendaele, with the immediate objective of ousting German troops from the village of Langemarck. Patch and his team went into action in the early hours of 16 August near Pilckem Ridge. During the advance, he came across a young British soldier ‘ripped open from shoulder to waist’, who begged to be put out of his misery: it was an image that would haunt Patch for the rest of his life (Patch and van Emden, 94). The team had made a highly irregular pact not to kill anyone unless their own lives were in danger, so when they saw a German soldier running towards them with a fixed bayonet while they were providing covering fire for advancing troops, Patch used his service pistol merely to put the man safely out of action.

On the night of 22 September, while the team was making its way across open ground to the reserve line, a stray shell burst directly above them and Patch received a shrapnel wound in the groin. It was only while he was recuperating in a military hospital in Liverpool that he learned that three of the gun-team had been killed by the shell, a loss which affected him deeply. By August 1918 he was deemed fit to resume training and was on the Isle of Wight when the armistice was declared.

Patch returned to Combe Down, but work was scarce and so he reluctantly took a job laying on water for a new housing development in Gobowen, Shropshire. He married Ada Emily Billington (1891–1976) on 13 September 1919, and two years later returned to Combe Down with her and the first of their two sons. He found employment with Sculls of Bristol, supplying and fitting lead flashing and pipes for the Wills Memorial Tower, which was being built at the city's university. After gaining membership of the Royal Sanitary Institute, he was transferred to the Clifton branch of Sculls as manager before setting up his own plumbing business in Combe Down. By the 1930s he had enough work to employ three men, but he was obliged to sell the business when the Second World War was declared and his employees were called up. Patch himself served with the Auxiliary Fire Service, then in 1942 took a job with the Ministry of Works providing sanitation for the temporary camps being built in Somerset for American troops in advance of D-day. He was employed to dismantle the camps when the troops left for France in June 1944.

After the war Patch took a plumbing job with the company E. R. Carter on the outskirts of Yeovil, where he remained until he retired in 1963. He spent his early retirement pursuing his interests in local history and archaeology, occasionally giving talks. When his wife died after a stroke in 1976, he went to live in Wells with his elder son, Dennis. After an increasingly unhappy four-year cohabitation, during which Dennis began selling off his father's possessions (including his war medals) in order to fund his alcoholism, Patch married his second wife, Jean (d. 1984), in 1980 and moved into sheltered housing in the city. Dennis died shortly afterwards and this led to a permanent estrangement between Patch and his other son. After Jean died in 1984, Patch moved into Fletcher House care home in Wells, where he became the devoted companion of another resident, Doris Whitaker.

Patch had never spoken about his experience of the First World War—not even to his first wife during their long marriage—but suppressed memories were suddenly revived when just before his 100th birthday he was awoken one night at Wells House by a flickering fluorescent light, which vividly brought back the experience of being under shell-fire. Shortly afterwards he was approached by the historian Richard van Emden and agreed to take part in a television documentary, Veterans. Once identified as one of a rapidly dwindling band of First World War survivors, Patch became increasingly in demand for similar programmes, books, and newspaper articles. Unlike other veterans he had no desire to return to the battlefields, but relented when invited to attend a ceremony marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of the unveiling of the Menin Gate at Ypres. Thereafter, although now in a wheelchair, he made several similar trips, notably in 2004 to Langemarck German military cemetery near Pilckem Ridge for a television documentary entitled The Last Tommy. There he met Charles Kuentz, a German veteran of Passchendaele, and the two centenarians who had faced each other as enemies eighty-seven years previously were filmed exchanging gifts in an act of reconciliation.

Thirteen men and two women were interviewed for The Last Tommy, seven of whom died before it was broadcast in 2005. A year later the official number of British veterans stood at nine, not all of whom had seen active service, and parliament decided that whoever became the last veteran should be given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. Patch had declined to join the veterans who laid wreaths at the Cenotaph in August 2004 to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the outbreak of war, and he even went so far as to dismiss the annual Remembrance day ceremony in Whitehall as ‘just show business’ (Patch and van Emden, 203). ‘I don't think there is any actual remembrance except for those who have lost someone they really cared for’, he added; ‘the day I lost my pals, 22 September 1917—that is my Remembrance Day’ (ibid.). During interviews he never failed to condemn warfare, describing it as ‘a calculated and condoned slaughter’, and he joined the British Legion only when bribed with a bottle of whisky to do so in the last year of his life (Parker, 277). When called upon to remember the fallen at public ceremonies, he always mentioned those on the opposing side because he regarded all combatants as the victims of politicians. Invited with other veterans to Downing Street, he characteristically took the opportunity to voice his support for the ‘Shot at Dawn’ campaign, which had been lobbying parliament to gain pardons for the 306 British soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion during the First World War.

In 2008 Patch collaborated with van Emden on his autobiography, to which by now he was able to give the title The Last Fighting Tommy. He used the royalties from the book to place a memorial to his fallen comrades at the exact spot in Belgium where he had gone into action ninety-one years earlier. This would be the last ever visit to the western front by someone who had fought there, and during it he also attended the ceremony at the Menin Gate, where he read aloud Laurence Binyon's famous lines from ‘For the Fallen’ to a large and visibly moved crowd, and revisited Langemarck cemetery, where he placed a wooden cross bearing the inscription ‘Comrades All. H. P.’ on the grave of a German soldier.

By November 2008 there were only three officially recognized veterans still alive. By fortunate coincidence, they represented the three services: Patch (aged 110) as a soldier, Henry Allingham (aged 112) as an airman, and Bill Stone (aged 108) as a sailor. (A fourth veteran, the frail 108-year-old Netherwood Hughes, had only just been identified, but because he no longer retained any memory of the war and because all relevant records had been destroyed in the blitz, his status was not recognized by the Ministry of Defence. He died on 4 January 2009.) The three men were invited to take part in a service at the Cenotaph on 11 November 2008 to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the armistice, and at the annual Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall, the queen rose with the rest of the audience to greet Patch when he appeared on stage.

Stone died on 10 January 2009, and when Allingham followed on 18 July Patch became the last veteran, a distinction he held for just one week. He died at Fletcher House on 25 July. Having declined a state funeral, he had nevertheless agreed to a large public one at Wells Cathedral, which was held on 6 August and broadcast live on television. It was designed to reflect his belief that all those who fought in wars were victims, irrespective of the uniform they wore. His coffin was borne into the cathedral by six currently serving men from his old regiment, flanked by two infantrymen from Belgium, two from France, and two from Germany—all of them, at his request, unarmed and as young as he had been at Passchendaele. Even ceremonial weapons were banned from the service, at which representatives of the Belgian, German, and French governments gave the readings. Patch's body was then taken to Monkton Combe church, where his family and ancestors lay, for a private burial.

Among other honours, Patch was appointed a knight of the order of Leopold (Belgium's highest award), was made first a chevalier and then an officer of the Légion d'honneur, was given the freedom of the city of Wells and an honorary doctorate from Bristol University, had a batch of Somerset cider (‘Patch's Pride’) and a racehorse (‘Harry Patch’) named after him, and was appointed guest agony uncle of the men's magazine FHM. Modest and unassuming, but articulate and opinionated to the end, he was an ideal representative of his generation. He also represented a vanishing rural England in which people felt they belonged to (and rarely moved beyond) the same small area of the country in which their families had lived for generations: his voice retained a distinct Somerset burr even when old age had reduced it to a whisper. Unlike Allingham and Stone, he was a reluctant celebrity, and he never allowed the role history had allotted him to temper his beliefs or silence him when he felt the need to speak out against conventional pieties.

Henry William Allingham (1896–2009), last surviving airman of the First World War, was born on 6 June 1896 at 2 Eden Terrace, Harrington Hill, Upper Clapton, London, the only child of Henry Thomas Allingham (1870–1899), mercantile clerk, and his wife, Amy Jane, née Foster (1872/3–1915). His father died of tuberculosis when Allingham was three, and he and his mother went to live with his grandparents in Walthamstow. He left school at sixteen to work as a trainee surgical instruments maker at St Bartholomew's Hospital, then found employment building car bodies at Foden and Scammell in East Dulwich. Dissuaded by his mother from joining up the moment the First World War broke out, he waited until she died in September 1915 before enlisting as an air mechanic in the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). He spent almost two years at the RNAS air station at Yarmouth, where he maintained aircraft, learned to fly, and took part in submarine and zeppelin patrols. In May 1916 he joined an armed trawler, HMT Kingfisher, which followed the Grand Fleet during the battle of Jutland—though until they returned to port Allingham was unaware that he had taken part in a major naval action.

Promoted an air mechanic first class, in September 1917 Allingham was sent to join no. 12 squadron of the RNAS at Petite-Synthe, near Dunkirk, where he serviced Sopwith Pups, Triplanes, and Camels, and salvaged parts from planes that crashed behind the lines. He also flew over the battlefields, sitting behind the pilot and dropping bombs over the side of the plane and firing on the enemy, and received a minor shrapnel wound when the St Pol aircraft depot was shelled. On 21 March 1918 he married Dorothy Edith Cator (1895–1970) whom he had met in 1916 in Yarmouth, where she worked as a sales assistant at a draper's; they had two daughters. When on 1 April 1918 the RNAS merged with the Royal Flying Corps, Allingham found himself a member of the new Royal Air Force, though he ‘still considered (himself) a Royal Navy man’ (Allingham and Goodwin, 113).

After being discharged on 19 March 1919, Allingham began working in the motor industry, notably with H. J. M. Car Body Builders, which adapted Rolls Royces for use by Indian maharajahs. In 1934 he joined the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham, where he remained for the rest of his working life. During the Second World War he worked at Ford's on developing devices to install on ships to protect them from magnetic mines. On his retirement in 1961, he and his wife moved to Eastbourne, where they bought a flat and he spent his leisure sailing, bicycling, and playing golf. When Allingham was widowed in 1970, his life began to contract: ‘I was a loner,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘I didn't make friends in the first place’ (ibid., 152). By 2000, when he was approached by Dennis Goodwin of the World War One Veterans' Society (founded in 1987), his eyesight and hearing were failing, he was depressed by the death of one of his daughters, more or less housebound, and ‘literally waiting to die’ (ibid., 156). Goodwin persuaded him that people were eager to hear about his war experiences, and this gave Allingham a new purpose. He soon became the most recognized of the veterans, frequently giving interviews, visiting schools, and taking part in public events, despite being confined to a wheelchair and registered blind (he moved to St Dunstan's residential centre for blind former servicemen, in Ovingdean, in 2006). In 2004 he unveiled the British Air Services memorial to the air personnel killed in the First World War at St Omer in France, before receiving a gold medal and freedom of the city. On his 110th birthday, his telegram from the queen was delivered in person by the defence secretary and the chancellor of the exchequer. His 111th birthday was celebrated aboard HMS Victory, his 112th hosted by the RAF and marked by a fly-past. His autobiography, Kitchener's Last Volunteer (co-written with Goodwin), was published in 2008, with a foreword by the prince of Wales. He received numerous honours and awards and in 2009 he became an officer of the Légion d'honneur. By now he was Britain's oldest living man—a fact he jocularly ascribed to ‘cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women’ (The Independent, 20 July 2009)—and on 19 June became the oldest living man on the planet. His death at St Dunstan's from a chest infection on 18 July made headlines all around the world. He was always more conventional than Patch and his funeral was held at St Nicholas's Church in Brighton with full military honours, his coffin borne by members of the RAF and Royal Navy. He was cremated.

William Frederick [Bill] Stone (1900–2009), last British man to serve in both world wars, was born on 23 September 1900 at Pound House, Ledstone, Buckland tout Saints, Devon, the tenth of the fourteen children (six sons and eight daughters) of William Frederick Stone, agricultural labourer, and his wife, Emma Celia, née Perring. From the age of three he attended Goveton School in a neighbouring village, leaving when he was thirteen to work as a labourer at nearby Sherford Down Farm. He attempted to join up at the age of fifteen, but his father refused to sign the necessary papers, and so he took a number of labouring jobs. Called up in September 1918, he followed the family tradition of serving with the navy, but was still in training in Devonport—and in hospital with influenza—when the armistice was declared.

Stone remained in the Royal Navy after the war, joining HMS Tiger as a stoker at Rosyth and witnessing the scuttling of the German fleet at Scapa Flow in June 1919. In 1922 he joined the crew of HMS Hood, which the following year led the special service squadron on the empire cruise, a diplomatic mission in which Britain's most famous battleships sailed around the world visiting countries that had fought with the allies. He set himself up as ship's barber on the Hood, earning £100 by the time the ship returned to Devonport. He subsequently served as chief stoker with the rank of chief petty officer on several other ships, including (from 1937) the Salamander, a minesweeper which in 1940 was involved in the evacuation from Dunkirk. The Salamander made five trips between Dunkirk and Dover, bringing back some 1500 troops: as well as maintaining the ship's power, Stone helped haul men out of the water and witnessed many deaths, describing this episode as ‘the worst experience of my life’ (The Guardian, 13 January 2009). The Salamander was then sent to patrol the waters off Russia, after which he served with HMS Newfoundland on convoys off north Africa, where the ship came under attack. In June 1943 the Newfoundland was among those ships covering the allied landings on Sicily: it was damaged by torpedo and Stone was mentioned in dispatches.

After being demobilized, Stone bought a barber's shop in Paignton, Devon, where he worked until his retirement in 1968. He had married Lily Margaret Edith Hoskin (1908–1995) on 27 May 1938 and lived above the shop with her and their one daughter until they could afford to buy a house in Torbay. It was when he reached his centenary in 2000 that Stone began to be fêted, becoming guest of honour at Hood and Newfoundland reunions and other events. The youngest of the three last veterans, Stone clearly enjoyed his late celebrity and remained remarkably fit-looking until his death at Lord Harris Court, Mole Road, Sindlesham, Berkshire, on 10 January 2009 from a chest infection. Harry Patch was not alone in thinking that the honour of being a last veteran should not be granted to anyone ‘who happened to be in uniform when the war ended’ (Patch and van Emden, 204); but although Stone never saw action in the First World War, his status as a veteran was officially and widely acknowledged.

The last veterans of other, earlier wars were occasionally identified and celebrated, but none of them achieved the iconic status of Patch, Allingham, and Stone. This is partly because these three very different men, bound together by the accident of longevity, survived into the age of mass media, but also because the First World War occupied a very particular place in the psyche of the nation. Whatever revisionist military historians might have argued, there was still, at the time of their deaths, a widespread belief that a whole generation was needlessly sacrificed in a war of attrition directed by a callous and incompetent high command. The contrast between the ‘innocence’ and high ideals of those who eagerly volunteered and the peculiarly horrible nature of trench warfare and the sheer scale of the casualties it produced remained especially and enduringly poignant. Above all, the overwhelming majority of those who volunteered or were conscripted were civilians rather than professional soldiers, and it was their testimony, whether as ‘war poets’ or as otherwise ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, that persisted. As an entire generation passed irrecoverably into history, the ‘last veterans’ both represented and spoke for those who fought and died a lifetime before, bearing witness to the very end.

Peter Parker

Sources  

‘The last Tommy’, television documentary, dir. H. Lilley, BBC, 2005 · M. Arthur, Last post (2005) · R. van Emden, Britain's last Tommies, 2nd edn (2006) · H. Patch and R. van Emden, The last fighting Tommy (2007) · H. Allingham and D. Goodwin, Kitchener's last volunteer (2008) · P. Parker, The last veteran: Harry Patch and the legacy of war (2009) · The Times (27 July 2009) · Daily Telegraph (27 July 2009) · The Guardian (27 July 2009) · The Independent (28 July 2009) · The Times (13 Jan 2009) [B. Stone] · Daily Telegraph (13 Jan 2009) [B. Stone] · The Guardian (13 Jan 2009) [B. Stone] · The Independent (14 Jan 2009) [B. Stone] · The Times (20 July 2009) [H. Allingham] · Daily Telegraph (20 July 2009) [H. Allingham] · The Guardian (20 July 2009) [H. Allingham] · The Independent (20 July 2009); (31 July 2009) [H. Allingham] · b. cert. · m. cert. [1919] · d. cert. · b. cert. [B. Stone] · m. cert. [B. Stone] · d. cert. [B. Stone] · b. cert. [H. Allingham] · m. cert. [H. Allingham] · d. cert. [H. Allingham]

Likenesses  

photographs, 2002–8, Rex Features, London · G. Price, C-type colour print, 2004, NPG · G. Price, C-type colour print, 2004 (Henry Allingham), NPG · G. Price, C-type colour print, 2004 (Bill Stone), NPG · photographs, 2006–8, PA Images, London · M. Cardy, photographs, 2008, Getty Images, London · T. Gregory, group portrait, photographs, 2008, Camera Press, London · group portrait, photographs, 2008 (Harry Patch with Henry Allingham and Bill Stone), Camera Press, London · group portrait, photographs, 2008 (Harry Patch with Henry Allingham and Bill Stone), Getty Images, London [see illus.] · photographs, 2008, Photoshot, London · D. L. Hall, oils, 2009, repro. in www.danllywelynhall.co.uk/page02.htm · obituary photographs · obituary photographs (Henry Allingham) · obituary photographs (Bill Stone)

Wealth at death  

under £32,000: probate, 16 Nov 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · under £204,000—Henry William Allingham: probate, 18 Sept 2009, CGPLA Eng. & Wales