Battle of Passchendaele's last survivor
Harry Patch was conscripted into the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry at the age of 18 in 1916 and was badly wounded in the battle of Passchendaele in 1917. He was the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War and briefly, the oldest man from any country in Europe.
Harry Patch (Private) Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry
By his 19th birthday, Harry was in the water-logged trenches, on the front line of the Ypres Salient. On 16 August the Battle of Langemark, the second assault of the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) commenced and Harry went over the top for the first time. As he and his team advanced across Pilckem Ridge towards Langemark, they passed fallen men and men with horrific wounds. They finally reached a vacated German trench, spent the night listening to the fading cries and screams of the wounded. When they were relieved they were given a rest period before returning in September to the front line. That experience remained with Harry for the rest of his life.
On the night of 22 September 1917, near Langemark in Belgium, a German gun crew fired a shell in into the British lines. Harry had an incredible escape but three other men serving with the Lewis gun team were killed and none of their remains were ever found. Harry was blown off his feet and injured with a shrapnel wound. He was taken to a Casualty Clearing Station where a doctor removed the shrapnel without anaesthetic. He then got shipped back to England to a hospital in Liverpool and then to a convalescent camp at Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham where he met his wife, Ada Billington. After one year's rehabilitation, he was sent to the front in Ypres once again in 1918.
Harry never spoke about the war for 81 years, until a BBC researcher contacted him just after his 100th birthday. His story was told and he returned to Flanders Fields for the first time in 2003. Harry was a witness for all his comrades who fell in the mud of Passchendaele.
The BBC persuaded Harry at 106, to return in the autumn of 2004, for a BBC documentary, The Last Tommy where he was filmed at Tyne Cot, the largest British war cemetery, containing almost 12,000 graves, many of them holding unidentified bodies. At the north east boundary of Tyne Cot, The Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing bears the names of almost 35,000 officers and men whose graves are not known.
On 27 September 2008, in a private ceremony attended by a few people, Patch opened a memorial on the bank of the Steenbeek in Langemark, at the point where he crossed the river in 1917. The memorial reads:
'Here, at dawn, on 16 August 1917, the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 20th (Light) Division, crossed the Steenbeek prior to their successful assault on the village on Langemarck. This stone is erected to the memory of fallen comrades, and to honour the courage, sacrifice and passing of the Great War generation. It is the gift of former Private and Lewis Gunner Harry Patch, No. 29295, C Company, 7th DCLI, the last surviving veteran to have served in the trenches of the Western Front.’
The municipality of Langemarck-Poelcapelle made the land available for the memorial stone. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission manufactured the stone and is responsible for its maintenance.
(3) Tyne Cot Cemetery
(4) Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917