Last week, Harry Patch, the last British soldier of the First World War, died. Roy Hattersley wrote this moving tribute:
For most of his life he had chosen not to talk about the blood and mud of France and Flanders. Then, as his years drew to a close, he began to bear witness to the sacrifice of his fallen comrades and he became the embodiment of the most famous line of First World War poetry: “At the going down of the sun ... we will remember them”. The memories were proud, clear and untainted with anger. He mourned the death of the Germans, against whom he fought, as well as the loss of the men with whom he had stood shoulder to shoulder. The schoolchildren, who were his favourite audience, were not urged to rejoice in victory or glory in triumph. Harry Patch preached the gospel of reconciliation.
Since Harry Patch fought at Passchendaele — official estimate of losses after four months, 244,897 killed, wounded and missing — we have changed some of our ways. Mostly, the changes have been for the better. In Harry Patch’s war thousands of deaths were reported each day as a matter of course. Now we rightly mourn, and question, every loss. Again the poetry tells the story of the gradual change in attitude. In the Second World War, both the false romance and the very real bitterness of 25 years earlier was replaced by an admirable practicality. “Better by far, for Johnny the bright star/ To keep your head and see his children fed.”