Harry Patch, the last British soldier alive to have fought in the trenches of the First World War, is now 108 years old and one of very few people who can directly recall the horror of that conflict. Harry vividly remembers his childhood in the Somerset countryside of Edwardian England. He left school in 1913 to become an apprentice plumber but three years later was conscripted, serving as a machine gunner in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Fighting in the mud and trenches during the Battle of Passchendaele, he saw a great many of his comrades die, and in one dreadful moment the shell that wounded him kill his three closest friends. In vivid detail he describes daily life in the trenches, the terror of being under intense artillery fire, and the fear of going over the top. Then, after the Armistice, the soldiers' frustration at not being quickly demobbed led to a mutiny in which Harry was soon caught up. The Second World War saw Harry in action on the home front as a fire-fighter during the bombing of Bath. He also warmly describes his friendship with American GIs preparing to go to France, and, years later, his tears when he saw their graves. Late in life Harry achieved fame, meeting the Queen and taking part in the BBC documentary The Last Tommies, finally shaking hands with a German veteran of the artillery and speaking out frankly to Prime Minister Tony Blair about the soldiers shot for cowardice in the First World War. The Last Fighting Tommy is the story of an ordinary man's extraordinary life.
Harry Patch served as a private in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. He was married in 1919 and had two sons. Between the wars he worked as a plumber and on building sites in the Bristol area, and when the Second World War broke out he served first as a firefighter throughout the Bath Blitz and later alongside American troops in the run-up to D-Day. In 2002 he attended the seventy-fifth anniversary of the inauguration of the Menin Gate at Ypres, and in 2005 he took part in the BBC TV documentary The Last Tommy and was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Bristol.
He died in July 2009.
Richard van Emden has interviewed over 270 veterans of the Great War and has written widely on the 1914 -18 conflict. His previous books include Britain's Last Tommies, Boy Soldiers of the Great War, All Quiet on the Home Front, Prisoners of the Kaiser and the top five best selling The Trench. He has visited the Somme and Ypres every year since 1985 and has an expert knowledge of the First World War battlefields. He lives in London.
(Photo credit: Jason Pierce-Williams)