The Last Tommies

January means a new batch of biographies in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including Britain’s last World War One veterans.

(I can’t express just how much I love the ODNB. It’s a treasure trove of information, serious and whimsical. And it just keeps growing: 225 more biographies were added in the latest quarterly update.)

Among the new entries is a really interesting one on Harry Patch (1898-2009), Henry Allingham (1896-2009), and Bill Stone (1900-2009). They were Britain’s last World War One veterans, Allingham from the RAF, Stone from the Royal Navy, and Patch—who was, for the last week of his life Britain’s only surviving World War One veteran—from the Army. The entry, by ODNB associate editor Peter Parker, observes that it was only in the last years of their lives that three men acquired their status as bearers of a special, solemn memory of the war. All had lived relatively “ordinary” lives (as a plumber, a mechanic, and a barber) for most of the 20th century.

At the end, Patch the “last Tommy” was a very un-ordinary veteran. Conscripted into the army in 1916 (“I didn’t want to go and fight anyone, but it was a case of having to”), at the third battle of Ypres his light machine gun team made a pact to try not to kill anyone. Once in the public eye, he condemned war and declared the official Remembrance Day ceremony at Whitehall “just show business.” He refused the offer of a state funeral, and insisted that there not even be any ceremonial weapons on the honor guard from France, Belgium, Britain, and Germany at his funeral in Wells Cathedral.

Parker ends the entry by saying that “the ‘last veterans’ both represented and spoke for those who fought and died a lifetime before,” but that seems to blandly understate what these men symbolized in their last years. They certainly spoke for themselves and many others, but as representatives they became living embodiments of a whole nation’s collective memory. Harry Patch seems to have never let bearing a century’s-worth of national remembrance on his shoulders get in the way of speaking his mind, but I’m not sure how many people who saw him saw him and not an endless line of Tommies, sacrificed before their time: the interchangeable dead of national rather than personal memory. Representing that is a pretty heavy burden, the kind that we usually only ask be carried by men of bronze or stone.

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