Harry Patch

9 Aug

harry-patchLast week saw the funeral of Harry Patch. Harry was the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches during the First World War (1914 – 1918). He was also, at the age of 111, the oldest man in Europe at the time of his death. Harry was 16 when war broke out, no older than many of you at Soar Valley, and a mere 20 when it finally ended.

After fighting in the First World War, Harry returned to normal life. As he was too old to fight during the Second World War (1939 – 1945), he helped people by working as a part-time fireman, fighting the fires caused by German bombing raids over Britain. For decades Harry kept silent about what he had experienced during the First World War, and it wasn’t until 1998, when Harry was 100 years old, that he was persuaded to tell the world of his experiences.

In his book The Last Tommy, Harry recalled one particular moment when he came face to face with a German soldier. Harry hated war and felt that killing in wars was “organised murder, and nothing else”. Faced with the German soldier, Harry was unable to kill his enemy. Instead, he shot him in the shoulder, forcing the German soldier to drop his rifle. Unarmed and wounded, the German soldier ran towards Harry in an effort to continue the fight hand-to-hand. Still unable to kill the man, Harry shot him in the knee and the ankle. Harry said, “I had about five seconds to make the decision. I brought him down, but I didn’t kill him.”

As I read this last week I thought about Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘The Man He Killed’. Thomas Hardy wasn’t writing about Harry Patch or even the First World War when he wrote the poem, but he shared Harry Patch’s confusion about war and the killing of an enemy soldier. Of course In ‘The Man He Killed’, the enemy soldier is killed by the speaker. The speaker is clearly troubled by their act, questioning it over and over in an attempt to justify the killing. I imagine if Harry had killed the German that faced him that day, his conscience would have plagued him much like the speaker in the poem.


The Man He Killed

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because –
Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
That’s clear enough; although

He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,
Off-hand like – just as I –
Was out of work – had sold his traps –
No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
You shoot a fellow down
You’d treat, if met where any bar is,
Or help to half a crown.

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