Harry Patch, WWI Veteran, Dies.

by Daniel Russ on August 7, 2009

Harry Patch,  Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, WWI, Dies.

Harry Patch, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, WWI, Dies.

Reporting from Wells, England — The cathedral bells pealed for an entire hour, tolling not just one man’s death but the passing of an era.

Harry Patch was 111 when he died two weeks ago, and his body was laid to rest Thursday after a memorial service here in the medieval city of Wells, in southwestern England.

* Britain’s last World War I soldier honored
Photos: Britain’s last World War…

But it wasn’t for his longevity that hundreds of mourners lined the streets and gathered solemnly on the cathedral lawn under rainy skies. It was to honor Britain’s last survivor of the trenches of World War I, the last man on these shores who bore firsthand witness to the blood-soaked conflict that forever changed Europe and the course of the 20th century.

Not that Patch, a modest fellow, would — or could — have picked that role for himself. Nor could he have foreseen, as an 18-year-old plumber’s apprentice drafted into the infantry, that his funeral 93 years later would be attended by masses of people he had never met: diplomats and aristocrats, veterans and civilians who converged on Wells to pay their respects.

“He was both a national icon and, at the same time, an ordinary man,” his friend Jim Ross told mourners in Wells Cathedral, as well as the untold numbers who paused at home and in the office to watch the midday service live on television.

Soldiers from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium escorted Patch’s flag-draped coffin to the church, a reflection of his plea for peace and reconciliation in his later years.

After the service, a duo of buglers sounded the last post, Britain’s version of taps. Uniformed veterans wiped away tears, their chests pinned with medals that would have gleamed in the sunshine if there had been any. It seemed fitting that there wasn’t.

The outpouring of national emotion over Patch’s death was yet another reminder that, nearly a century later, World War I continues to exert a hold on the British imagination unmatched by any of the conflicts since, even though the “war to end all wars” didn’t.

Unlike in the United States, whose “Greatest Generation” featured those who fought in World War II, for Britons — and countless other Europeans — that distinction belongs firmly to the soldiers who endured misery and death by the millions on the fields of Flanders.

The tremendous death toll is part of the reason why Britain and its imperial territories lost a staggering 900,000 troops, leaving almost no family untouched. Go to even the tiniest community in the British countryside and you’ll find a monument in the parish church or on the village green commemorating the sacrifices of local young men who fell in the war.

“A whole generation was wiped out,” said Monica Williams, 64. Two of her great- uncles died in battle.

Sources: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-britain-funeral7-2009aug07,0,995903.story

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