Harry Patch who was 111 years old, will be buried today after what will be a moving and what appears to be a national ceremony of some significance for all of us.
As I write, crowds gather outside Wells Cathedral to pay their respects not just to him, the last British soldier to have served in the trenches during the First World War (1914-1918) but also to all those others who were involved in that most horrific of wars.
Harry Patch, plumber, has done what few other very elderly people achieve. He has used his extreme old age as a way of speaking to the world about his passionate beliefs. In his case, awe-inspiringly, his profound disapproval of the use of mass warfare to settle international disputes.
As a plain British “Tommy”, he was at the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium (June to November 1917) where the German and British armies fought out a bloody, mud drenched fight for territory around the small village of Passchendaele.
No one won and there were hundreds of thousands of casualties – enough for even the most revisionist of historians to see the campaign as a terrible waste of life.
Harry said that “irrespective of uniforms, we were all victims.”
He used his remarkably long life to speak up for all of those who were silenced in their youth by a war that was really an obscene blood-letting conceived to resolve the political power struggles of imperial nations.
Harry Patch’s coffin will be accompanied by soldiers in Belgian, French and German uniforms but weapons, even ceremonial swords will be banned.
So today is a day for remembrance, for all those who died in that war and for all those who die in all those other wars where human life takes second place to the ambitions of powerful leaders.
It is also a day to remember a great old man who maintained a dignified and passionate stance over the futility of the horrors that he experienced.
We all owe it to his memory that we make no mistakes about the horrific realities of warfare and the huge moral responsibility that lies on politicians’ shoulders when they seek to resolve diplomatic problems with the deaths of millions.
For all those of us, everyone now, who did not experience the horrors of Passchendaele, this battle, and the war itself, must be remembered as a warning as well as a tragedy.
There is an emotional memory of those years and that massive loss of life that will stick, maybe for centuries. We should keep that memory for the good of all who come after us.
Very few of us can think of those poppies flowering on what were once muddy killing fields without a chill settling on our hearts.
When I was a schoolboy, I was often moved by a ceremony that happened every Monday morning in our school chapel. A prefect, usually of the age of those dead Passchendaele victims, used to recite that well-known poem by Lawrence Binyon as he turned the page in a book which recorded all of our school’s war dead:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Then we all mumbled, in true Monday morning schoolboy fashion those words, “We will remember them”.
Harry Patch did grow old and he definitely more than fulfilled that promise to remember. Let’s all remember him too.