“Dress it as we may, feather it, daub it with gold, huzza it, and sing swaggering songs about it, what is war, nine times out of ten, but murder in uniform?” – Douglas Jerrold
At the age of a hundred and eleven, Harry Patch (17 June 1898 to 25 July 2009), the last surviving soldier from World War One, gave strict instructions for his funeral: “There should be no weapons on display”.
On one last visit to Flanders “to remember his pals” Harry had said that war was “calculated slaughter”, that the dead were “victims of governments” and that the “war wasn’t worth one life”.
Then, with slow, telling movements of his spindly arms and his pallid, blue-veined hands, he’d carefully indicate the wreaths which he’d brought with him, that were also to be laid beside the graves of the ‘enemies’ whom the British army had killed.
When aged 109, Harry had mischievously suggested in his crow-like, West Country life-rattle of a voice that he’d give the Presidents of quarreling countries “a bullet each for the fools to fight it out alone.”
The last living witness to ‘the war to end all wars’ stoutly declared that he’d no time for “thieving politicians’ lies”.
‘Dulce et decorum est…’ Harry would doggedly nail the warmonger’s vampire fib, giving the vainglory of “dying for your country” an even more derisive snort than Wilfred Owen had managed. For the last soldier in that so mawkishly mythologized ‘war to end all wars’ had run counter to the whole venture by making a solemn vow never to kill a single enemy, for he “had none”.
The last hero would undermine war’s hollow heroism with every breath he took, dismising the fairy stories about how noble it was for a fresh-faced boy to flush his life down a muddy toilet of a trench while screeching and bleeding and howling with horror as he was thwacked again and again by flying lumps of burning metal so that – as all the opportunistic liars and the well-respected stately madmen would so routinely claim – “others might be free”.
And there was more to Harry’s thoughts than all the soft platitudes of peace and love. They were born of the bone. When faced, at Paschendaele, with someone coming towards him, coming to kill him, coming shrieking out of the smoke and cawdite with their bayonet drawn and their pistol blazing – Harry made a point of bringing them down with just a leg-wound.
“I didn’t kill him” he’d say with pride and, then almost inaudibly, he would detail how, early on in the war, he’d made his own small bid to end it; to end that “war to end all wars” – a phrase at which he’d snort with the gentlest hint of sarcasm.
Harry had made a pact with five fellow-soldiers that they would never kill a man; that they’d never kill a single ‘enemy’. Then, “When the so-called enemy showed up,” Harry’d whisper, “and it was to be them or us, what we’d do – we would just wound ‘em – that’s all – by aiming for their legs. And that were it.”
According to King’s Regulations his peacenik pact would have been a capital offense had Harry and his mates been discovered and, ever afterwards, Harry would allude to their conspiracy with a guarded chuckle as if he could still be arrested for it, escorted to the guard-house and even put before a firing squad and shot for his ‘treason’ nearly a century on.
Just after the illegal invasion of Iraq, a real traitor, the then prime minister, Tony Blair, hoped to meet Harry – now becoming quite well-known as ‘The Last Tommy’ – with a view to Blair’s exploiting him in a photo opportunity to upgrade Blair’s own profile.
After Blair had effected his introduction, he edged towards Harry’s wheelchair, transparently trying to absorb Harry’s stardust and to claim it for his own.
But, unexpectedly, he’d meet with Harry’s sharp rebuff.
Harry regaled him with the Harry Patch remedy for conflict resolution, namely that “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder”.
Harry also told him that “nobody during the first world war should have been shot for cowardice as war is organized murder” – Harry then looked up at the embarrassed face of his now thwarted lens-hungry predator adding, with a rigid stare, “and nothing else.”
Harry Patch had done what no War Crimes Tribunal has yet succeeded in, namely to make the despised war criminal and profiteer, Anthony Charles Lynton Blair squirm, to make his excuses and then to scuttle off.
Harry also thought that Poppy Day, the nation’s commemoration beside the Cenotaph of its wartime dead, was “just show business”.
Instead Harry would prefer to sit quietly with a glass of stout; a red tartan blanket on his knee; and recall each of the exact days upon which all of his good friends had died. In his mind’s eye he’d see them still, standing and quivering and then flailing “like windmills” as they stumbled and fell towards Harry through the mists of time.
“They’re still thrashing about,” he’d say with a slow dab at his cheek, and then he’d gasp a second, recalling the trench dogs that tore at dead men’s battle-dress, fighting each other for the abandoned ration of a broken, bloodstained biscuit in a battle-dress pocket.
Harry would look up from such reveries, to enquire sharply, “What are we doing now that’s really any different? Two civilized nations, British and German, fighting for our lives? What are we doing now?”
Those who came as pilgrims to visit the great man from the un-great war in his care home in Somerset would meet an amateur historian, keen on Arthurian myths, who’d spent his life as a professional plumber.
An “ordinary man”, Harry was keen to make that plain, but one who’d plumbed a simple truth in an extraordinary fashion.
“There was no glory – not a whiff of it – glory’s just gold leaf,” he’d say. “Paschendaele was mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood.” He’d look up, his head at a frail, half-wounded angle but always with a warm glint in ancient, limpid eyes, and quietly ask, “if all wars end with people sitting round a table talking, just like we are now, then you’d think they could have done that to begin with, without all the heaps of bodies in between.”
Harry had had the chance, like few others, to put war’s inflated myths to the test and find them wanting – caused by a fault-line in the human psyche which Harry had tried to patch. By way of reward, Harry would suddenly discover that he’d lived far longer than almost anyone just, perhaps, by his talking life-enhancing sense.
Then one rainy Saturday in Somerset he closed his eyes, for that distant reassuring twinkle to find another home. Seated in his armchair he slipped off, with no showbiz fanfare – no medal for a final leap “over the top” to no-man’s land.
To a new no-man’s land that he hoped would be unburdened by quaking, shrieking half-children and hellish bombs and searing bullets but instead filled with rollicking mates – the fellow pact members he’d kept faith with all his life – now maybe joking with all their so-called enemies that they’d spared by just winging, now perhaps a small chorus of flightless angels singing Harry’s praises.
The pact’s members, and those whose lives they’d saved, was joined by someone who’d spent 111 years as a testament to the merit of none of it happening again, if he could help it.
As soon as Harry’s death was announced every statesman, politician, royal panjandrum and military brass-hat sidled into the limelight, eager to use him for their own ends.
Each in turn would ignorantly romanticize Harry’s courage in war, “What a man!” “What a testimony to human endeavour!” Cliché after cliché was piled on top of his body as thoughtlessly as a child slaps down mud-pies.
“Private Harry Patch was the greatest living Englishman…” “We’re here to pay homage to Harry Patch, the last glorious survivor of the Great War etc” All repeated with the grandiose pride that only conceited nationalism can conjure, while each speaker pointedly overlooked Harry’s most subversive quality – each one studiedly buried his true message in the cold clay, along with his remains.
Each one forgot to mention what it was that Harry Patch had actually done.
Instead they all insidiously implied that, while peace was a hopeless pipe-dream – the scorned province of cowardly simpletons – war must be good since, all said and done, had not war spawned such splendid superheroes as Private Harry Patch?
Yet the irony – the unique, exquisite irony – was that the hero whom they were at such pains to appropriate to themselves, Harry Patch, hadn’t really fought in their war at all.
Their hero was a fifth columnist. A ‘conchie’. A peacenik renegade. He’d never killed a soul. He’d never fought in the Imperialist war that they so sentimentalized – that war engendered solely by trade rivalry, that ‘war to end all wars’ which would then be the cause of World War Two, and then, thanks to all of that war’s unfinished business, of World War Three, the Cold War; leading inexorably to Four and maybe Five and maybe more and more and more.
But instead Harry had fought against war’s oppressive, squalid lies in the bravest way he knew, together with his pals and in doing so he was as brave as any puffed-up killer. Harry had had his groin ravaged and his chest clawed at by piping hot pieces of shrapnel and he wanted others to be spared the experience of grasping hold of your burning, bleeding, disintegrating crutch while bawling across a dank, wasteland of sludge and cold, stinking shite that stretched to the horizon with no one within earshot – Spared shredded bowels and bits of flesh draped on barbed wire or frozen on the ground, and spared the sounds of misled boys screaming for their mothers before they just despaired and died.
And, at the last, he fought not to have his shy, noble stature poached by crooked Whitehall kingpins – the spin doctors of the status quo, or by the dusty panoply of Royal confectionary, all of whom, through moral bankruptcy and idle self-regard, still give credence to yet more idiotic ventures whereby other lions are led by donkeys to their doom.
Graphics: Nick Victor / Claire Palmer