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.
The Battle of Passchendaele, 1917.
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.