Harry Patch, veteran soldier

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Harry Patch, pictured at a sprightly 107. He is now 109.

Harry Patch is the last known surviving British soldier of World War I, at 109 years of age. The BBC followed his journey to the battle site of Passchendaele, or the Third Battle of Ypres, in which he fought. But his mind is as sharp as ever and his thoughts about war are profound and important. He says “The Germans suffered the same as we did”, a recognition of the common bond between veteran soldiers. No animosity, no hatred, no barbs. Just common humanity and deep understanding.

The figures about the battle of Passchendaele tell only one half of the story: 325,000 Allied casualties, 260,000 Germans. Over the 99 days of battle between July 31st 1917 and November 6th 1917, an average of 3,000 British troops were killed, wounded, or captured daily. Think about that for a moment. In Iraq today, just over 3,650 US troops have lost their lives and approximately 26,000 have been wounded in action. (And that’s too many!). That amounts to about 10 days worth of casualties for one side in the Battle of Passchendaele. And all that for one small front in a very long war.

But the other half of the story is just as grim. It is the story of mud, rain, and appalling squalor. With the combined effects of enormous amounts of rain, shelling, and hundreds of thousands of men, horses, trucks, and guns, the entire battlefield was churned up into one vast plain of mud. Horses and men drowned in the mud, overcome by exhaustion and the sheer difficulty of the terrain. The war machine ground on through a quagmire that no description could do justice to.

And in the end: the battle ended just five miles beyond the starting point. Futility personified.

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The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.

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Lone soldier walks through the battlefield of Passchendaele

Harry Patch is the last living link to those times and we should heed his words: “Too many died. War isn’t worth one life,” said Mr Patch. He said war was the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings”. Harry has had 90 years to think through those simple words and I cannot think of a better way to put it. 

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17 Comments

  1. David Levine said,

    July 31, 2007 at 11:58 am

    Amen. Those statistics almost make one hopeful for this century (I almost said the “twenty first” century, but then remembered that number is reckoned from the lifetime of a religious figure) were it not for the fact that our hatreds have deepened so darkly, to the very core of our belief systems. And that irreversible polarization pits us all against one another. Mr. Patch’s war was the one to end all wars, but it wasn’t Jesus vs. Mohammed. If only someone like Mr. Patch could be king of the world. Then maybe we could finally exterminate every last one of those violent religious fanatics!! Oops, guess this went a bit too far … sorry.

    Harry Patch is so right. Not worth one life.

  2. David Levine said,

    August 6, 2007 at 2:09 am

    Those images are quite evocative of any number of sci-fi epics in which the heroes happen upon a devastated, lifeless world.

  3. Monado said,

    November 7, 2007 at 1:59 am

    Learning about the battle made me despise General Haig from the time I was a teenager, for his reckless disregard for the lives of his troops.

  4. geoff said,

    November 13, 2007 at 2:49 am

    I have read alot about ww1. I read about the suffering and I take an interest about world affairs. Its natural that a man who witnessed such suffering as Harry would have the view that all wars are not worth the life of one man. When I look back at film and history of ww1, and I watch how desperately the two sides, with so much in common, and so little to fight about, tried with all their resources to inflict massive damage on each other, I cant quite get my head round why they would go so far! why, when the masses started falling in the mud and the suffering went on and on, they didn’t just come to some stalemate agreement? why would each side rather purge their whole countries of all young men rather than just accept a stalemate? Be that as it may, sometimes wars are unavoidable aren’t they?

  5. Marc Patch said,

    November 16, 2007 at 8:22 am

    I am so happy to see you here Mr. Harry Patch I always want to find if there isn’t any other Patch(s) besides those family members I know of. Your testimony is impressive and admirable and blessed may you be.

    Marc Patch

    A composer concert music born in Montreal Canada in 1958
    father is Robert Gordon Patch (born Canadian)
    Grand-father born in England I do not remember his first name anyway there isn’t many of us so I thought I would say Hi and Congratulations

  6. Martin said,

    January 7, 2008 at 10:41 pm

    A straight statement. I just finished reading “They Called It Passchendaele” by Lyn MacDonald. I can only recommend her books, which point out how completely ridiculous the war was. The soldiers on the two sides commiserated, yet were asked to kill each other as well. Monado, I cannot agree with you more. When I was 15, I picked up Liddell Hart’s book and a book by AJP Taylor on world war one. And I came away with the thought that Haig was a stuck-up, callous fool obsessed with being right. I wanted to study history to prove it. And did.

  7. Philippa said,

    September 12, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    My great-grandfather was swallowed by the mud at Passchedaele. It always strkes a shiver down my spine whenever I have driven through that area of Belgium. It is amazing that a man who must have witnessed such terrible atrocities at such a young age should be so balanced in his recolection of it. My great-grandfather suffered from shell-shock, and was sent home on leave for a brief period. As a result he managed to attend my grandmother’s baptism – the only time he met his only daughter. As long as these stories remain in living memory, it is easy to visualise the futility of it all. When Mr Patch finally joins his friends, we will have to work much harder to remember.

  8. Paul said,

    October 26, 2008 at 4:28 am

    Some time has passed, is Mr Patch still with us? What a great man. What a great generation.
    Haig was a fool, by our modern day standards, true, but you cant re-visit history and judge by our perspective. Between the time Haig first enterred military service to the outbreak of WW1, wars and how they were fought changed immensely, and most generals, inclusive of Haig, were unable to adapt. The old system they grew up under did not see how to employ new weapons like the machine guns, which if they had, should have led to a quick deciscion instead of 41/4 yrs of stalemate.
    It wasnt until The CANADIAN CORPS under Currie finally balked the system and employed small groups of shock troops, which the Germans feared and called Stormtrooopers, that had mobility and far greater firepower than there numbers aluded to, firing and moving, opening small holes that coud be exploited, that the stalemate started to break. Once other Allied nations caught on to the new Canadian idea, the battlefield became mobile again. The Germans saw what the Canadian Corps was able to do, and years later…Well we know it now as Blitzkreig.
    Haig was a stubborn fool, no doubt. Even after he saw the Canadian successes at places his own army failed, like Vimy, Passchendaele, Even as early on as the 1st battle of Ypres, where, Canadians, under gas, held the line and even made small advances he refused to embrace the concept. That was in 1914-15, for crying out loud!!

  9. alex morison said,

    December 4, 2008 at 1:04 am

    Thanks Harry,
    The thing to remember is that Industrial nations had never fought each other in all out war prior to this conflict. The Allies at the outbreak of war, were only really expecting a ‘Napoleonic’ type conflict of movement fought in the same style as 19th century war.
    The habitual need to defend our empire and adapt to warfare in the colonies meant that we had a relatively small standing army which was more accustomed to fighting irregular guerilla armies in Africa for example. Therefore, this dictated the mentality embedded in the military establishement at this time. It was neither right or wrong because no-one really understood the seriousness of the resolve of our enemies in their persuit of victory via the Schlieffen plan or the potential for desruction that their industrial might represented. There was a crushing and murderous assault by Germany on two fronts which required an extraordinary amount of adaptibility by our military chiefs and soldiers, who initially faced millions of German infantry, a massive fighting force, we were desperate! The inevitable victims were the defending soldiers of the allied forces. We fought for 3 years alone to withstand the presure of the force of violence imposed upon us by the Germans and their allies and the Yanks eventually rescued us from defeat after German troops were poured into the western front following the Russian revolution and collapse of resistance in the east. Our military leaders at the time showed great adaptibility and were strong in the face of public and political pressure, so were our soldiers. The Generals made many mistakes but learned from them (at the expense of our soldiers) and we eventually won this horrible war.
    Strategic and tactical practice during the Great War and it’s impact on outcomes has always been speculative but one thing is certain, the German plan was defeated relatively early in the conflict. The fantastic action at Le Cateau and the miricale at the Marne when the Allies stood and faced the enemy after the retreat from Mons really stopped the Germans dead in their tracks. They did not sue for peace though at that point and opted for the continued persual of glory in all it’s arrogance and that is what inflicted the carnage upon the ordinary people who had to fight in that awful war. Not our Leaders!
    We have to remember that we had leaders who didn’t give up under the extreme pressure of Germanic aggression (not that makes any difference to the PBI). To blame Sir Douglas Haig for the waste of life during that war is controversial because this was new, 3 million mobilised troops fielded by the Germans was different gear and can only be compared in modern times to Russian or Chinese numbers (English army- 600’000 in 1914 all professional soldiers in the BEF).
    Blame the Germans, not Haig. Praise our soldiers and above all, hate war.
    Alex

    • Ricky said,

      June 15, 2009 at 5:47 am

      Alex, of course Field Marshal Haig and the others Allied leaders should take their appropriate blame. Generals and all military leaders are judged by their ability to innovate and, therefore, they should not be judged pragmatically. Just as Guderian and Rommel are praised for their effective and, at the time, innovative tactics in the conquest of France during WWII, Haig and others are chastised for their rigidity and utter blandness. Although the military dilemmas of WWI proved difficult to solve, Haig’s lack of patience and desire to continue with the same ineffective tactics led to many defeats. Given that Haig and his contemporaries were not used to static warfare, Haig should have taken time to rethink his military strategy after the initial Allied losses. However, Haig did not adjust anything. Moreover, you cited Le Cateau and the Marne as two victories attributed to the work of the generals. Nevertheless, these victories are not at all a testament to the brilliance of the generals, instead, these victories are a statement to the soldiers who magnificently fought in light of the desperately hopeless positions they had been thrown into. Additionally, you fail to mention that by the time the Germans had reached the Marne their supply lines had been grossly overextended and a massive gap had opened up between their First and Second Armies. In other words, the defeat was a bygone conclusion. Haig and his Allied counterparts are not solely to blame for the many needless casualties suffered by the Allies, yet, their constant stubbornness and refusal to adjust justifiably receives, and will continue to receive, criticism for the rest of time.

  10. Simone Guidi said,

    July 18, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Harry=the king

  11. olivia said,

    July 27, 2009 at 7:37 am

    my maternal great grandfather fought in wwI….he never came back! My great grandmother never stopped mourning for him. Never stopped crying…
    Someone, somehow…sent her back his bloodied wedding ring…

    Some years ago, I met a man who for whatever reason?….told me- that his grandfather during wwII had the job of shooting Any soldier who did not advance on the “enemy” from the trenches…

  12. Kevin B. said,

    August 6, 2009 at 6:16 pm

    Not worth one life? I’m sorry but at what time does a man stand up to stop another man from killing, imprisoning their fellowman? War is horrible and should be the very last resort, but there times that people should rise up to stop the men who would seek to destroy others for the love of power.

  13. Michael smith said,

    August 6, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    These Guys like harry patch sure do deserve the admiration that all the kids dont show
    thanks to them we are free of rule of a dictator
    they saw things that a 16 year old would not see nowa days even iraq
    my father was in 2nd world war and my mother
    My father was always telling my about the second and first world war from the people that he knew lots about the 1st ww
    i have dvds on the somme and 1st world war

  14. Jake MacLean said,

    April 18, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Rest In Peace those who fought to protect our freedom. Harry was the last remaining British soldier or WW1.

  15. Jake MacLean said,

    April 18, 2010 at 11:43 am

    of*

  16. July 31, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    […] The quick history is at about.com: Passchaendale. There is, the last I heard, one surviving Canadian British veteran, Harry Patch. […]


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