On Sept. 22, 1917, a British Lewis gun team was hit by an incoming German shell during the third Battle of Ypres, near Passchendaele, Harry Patch was a member of that team. He was blown away by the blast, but his other three teammates were completely vaporized. He never saw them again. Patch struggled for years to tell that story, which he finally did before he died in 2009.
At his death, the last British Tommy to see World War I combat was 111 years, one month, one week, and one day old.
A Canadian soldier tests out a Lewis Gun similar to the one Harry Patch worked in World War I.
With Patch went our collective connection to a bygone era. While other Great War veterans outlived Patch, Patch was the last among them to fight in the mud, the wet, the disease-ridden trenches of World War I’s Western Front. He was born in 1898 and drafted into the British Army at age 18. After a brief training period, Private Patch was sent to the Western Front with the other members of his Lewis Gun team during the winter of 1916. The next year is when the German artillery round hit his position and killed his friends.
Patch was still wounded and recovering by the time of the Armistice in November 1918. For the rest of his life, he considered September 22 to be his remembrance day, not November 11.
Patch with Victoria Cross recipient Johnson Beharry in 2008.
By the time World War II rolled around, Harry Patch was much too old to join the Army and served as a firefighter in the British city of Bath instead. Patch never discussed his wartime experiences with anyone, let alone journalists, so he declined interviews until 1998, when the BBC pointed out to him that the number of World War I veterans still alive was shrinking fast. His first appearance was World War I in Colour, where he recalled the first time he came face to face with an enemy soldier. He shot to wound the man, not kill him. Patch was not a fan of killing, even in warfare.
“Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left,” he told the BBC in 2007.
Six pall-bearers from the 1st Battalion The Rifles bear the coffin of World War I veteran Harry Patch into Wells Cathedral in 2009.
Before his death, Harry Patch returned to the fields of Passchendaele where his three best friends met their end. He was going to once again meet a German, but this time there would be only handshakes. At age 106, Patch met Charles Kuentz, 107-year-old German World War I veteran who fought the British at Passchendaele. The two exchanged gifts and talked about the futility of war.
Patch wrote his memoirs at 107, to become the oldest author ever, and later watched as World War I-era planes dropped poppies over Somerset in memoriam to those who served. He died in 2009, aged 111 years, one month, one week, and one day. The bells of Wells Cathedral in Somerset were rung 111 times in his honor.