Thousands attend funeral of last WWI trench soldier

7th August 2009, Comments 0 comments

At the age of 19, Patch fought at the notorious Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where an estimated half a million troops were killed, but waited until his 100th year before speaking about his wartime experiences.

Wells – Thousands of people paid their respects on Thursday at the funeral of Harry Patch, the last soldier to fight in the trenches of Europe in World War I, who died at the age of 111.

Patch was laid to rest after a service in Wells Cathedral, in Somerset, southwest England, attended by 1,400 people who heard that he was an ordinary man who had inadvertently become a symbol of the horrors of war.

Thousands more followed the service on a giant screen outside the cathedral and lined the route as the hearse carrying his coffin passed through the city.

At the age of 19, Patch fought at the notorious Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where an estimated half a million troops were killed, but waited until his 100th year before speaking about his wartime experiences.

Representatives from the governments of Belgium, France and Germany took part in the service in a sign of Patch's respect for soldiers on all sides of the war.

The Very Reverend John Clarke, Dean of Wells, told mourners: "Harry was an ordinary Somerset man, a plumber who tended his vegetable gardens, looked after his chickens but he became extraordinary, someone who was an icon for our nation and for western Europe."

Patch, who died on July 25, was also briefly Britain's oldest man following the death a week before his own of fellow World War I veteran Henry Allingham at the age of 113. At the time, Allingham was the oldest man in the world.

Their deaths leave just two surviving World War I veterans: Franck Buckles, 108, of the United States and British-born Claude Choules, 108, who lives in Perth, Australia.

Unlike Patch, however, neither Buckles nor Babcock saw active combat in the 1914–1918 war, says the French website dersdesders.free.fr which tracks the last survivors of the conflict.

Britain's Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said at the service Patch's death "marks the passing of a generation, and of a man who dedicated his final years to spreading the message of peace and reconciliation."

In his final years, Patch spoke frequently about the conflict, calling it "organised murder" and saying: "It was not worth it, it was not worth one let alone all the millions."

His coffin was carried into the cathedral by British soldiers of 1st Battalion The Rifles, with two soldiers of each of the armed forces of Belgium, France and Germany acting as pall-bearers.

His great-nephew, David Tucker, who carried his medals and decorations into the cathedral, said Patch would have been proud of the service "as a culmination of the work he did towards reconciliation."

Marie-France Andre of the Belgian embassy read an extract from Patch's book "The Last Fighting Tommy" in which a dying German soldier's cry of "mother!" convinced him there was an afterlife.

"From that day I've always remembered that cry and that death is not the end," Patch had written.

Eckhard Wilhelm Lubkemeier, charge d'affaires of the German embassy, read a lesson from the Bible.

AFP / Expatica

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