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On the centenary of Passchendaele, I miss Harry Patch

November 11, 2013


Here’s Harry Patch (1898 –  2009)

Nobody could ever turn on Harry Patch on the subject of war and peace and say “Oh shut up you old hippy – what do you know about it?”

Harry Patch was the very last survivor of the classic WWI trench war experience.  He fought at Passchendaele (aka “as bad as it gets”) and became known as “the last fighting tommy”.

He was one man on earth who, when he felt like piping up to say “war is a monstrous waste and the young people should try to stop it happening”, could be certain of everyone at least pretending to listen to him.  And he did say such things and variants of such things with increasing frequency in his extreme old age.

What was lost when we lost Harry Patch was someone who had absolute and unsilenceable authority to proclaim “war is always horrible and wrong”.  When he spoke up for peace, there was nobody to gainsay him.

I have a recollection of war commemoration dominated by Harry Patches, or at least within which Harry Patches formed a dominant thread.   I have a recollection of war commemoration in which the dwindling band of WWI veterans stood for an urgent and necessary dream of putting an end to war forever more.

I could be that I’m missing something these days.  I hear a deal about heroism and sacrifice, but I don’t hear a lot about the absolute wrongness and hideousness of war.  Some wars may be grimly necessary and justifiable, and some are even morally obligatory but the fact of war itself – the experience itself is an unambiguous evil.  They are humanity’s shame and failure.  And each generation needs to pledge to do their darndest to put an end to it all if they possibly can.  Each generation needs to imagine a world without war if at all possible.  The losses incurred by each generation should inspire subsequent generations not to emulate but to eradicate the context of such loss.

When I was a child, there were enough Harry Patches in the world to make every  November a month for sombre reflections on mechanised slaughter.  “Remembrance Day” was dominated by still lucid and ambulant octogenarian World War One veterans who gave the occasion a very strong “never again” vibe.  So I’m less interested in the cultural politics of what should and shouldn’t be worn in lapels than in a more raw and visceral need to confront each new generation with the waste and wrongness of organised killing.

And then we can all listen to “Some Mother’s Son” by the Kinks for a while.


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  1. Reblogged this on conradbrunstrom and commented:

    Just thought I’d repost a bit about Harry Patch. Centenary of World War One and all…

  2. jon brown permalink

    A squabble in one family was how he put it. Can’t think of anything to better that.

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