Harry Patch – the last link broken

July 26, 2009 at 10:53 pm (Champagne Charlie, hell, history)

The death of Harry Patch  - the last  surviving “Tommy” to have served in the trenches of WW1 – breaks an important link for us children of the twentieth century: the last survivor of the first “modern” war has gone.

There has always been something terribly sad about the First World War: a useless, worthless enterprise, entered into by German and British imperialism at the price of millions of working class lives. The Second World War could at least be justified on the grounds of opposition to Hitler’s genocidal plan for world domination.

Harry, from what we can gather, hated war, and called it “organised murder, and nothing less.” (Independent on Sunday, 26th July 2009).

He may, or may not have been a pacifist:

“Field”, a commentator at Harry’s Place, makes a fair point:

As is the way in our culture the obvious was glossed over.

The media wanted him to be a symbol but the bloke had his own ideas and views delivered in his delightful Somerset burr.

It was quite clear to me on the basis of the words he spoke that he was a pacifist. On the basis of his experience he objected to any war. No war justified the loss of even one life. Not world war 2, not the Falklands, not Iraq, not Afghanistan.

Just because he was 100 plus when he said this doesn’t mean we should patronise him in my view. His words rather make a mockery of what one might call the British Legion orthodox position (as exemplified by David T here): that war is hell, that sacrifice is noble, that soldiers don’t evaluate the worth of war but they do what their country asks of them.

Personally I think his pacifism wrong-headed and full of contradictions. Understandable of course but not right because it is understandable.

So rather than try and make of him a symbol, I would rather say there was a man who suffered, who saw his friends suffer terribly but who had his views as a result of his experience. I don’t agree with those views. But I respect them and I think that’s what many of his friends died for and he fought for – a society where people can disagree without rancour.

We don’t know what Harry thought about the war in Afghanistan, and it’s rather distasteful for the Independent on Sunday to assume that he would oppose it. We don’t know this  dead man’s specific opinions, and we should not try to co-opt them to our chosen causes. Many of his recorded sayings are, as you’d expect, anti-war, and he may well have been a pacifist.

On the other hand, he also said:

The first world war, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it. The second world war…Hitler wanted to govern Europe, nothing to it. I would have taken the Kaiser, his son, Hitler, and the people on his side and bloody shot them. Out the way and saved millions of lives. T’isn’t worth it.”

BBC interview, 2007

Whatever his precise views, we know he hated war. And, like all civilised persons, he thought it should be avoided if at all possible. That should be good enough for anyone.

We salute him.

4 Comments

  1. maxdunbar said,

    Amazing post

  2. maxdunbar said,

    My grandad came back from WW2 a pacifist. He was a tank commander and had seen Belsen. I don’t share his pacifism but I probably would if I had experienced anything close to what he went through.

  3. Bruce said,

    I appreciated a clip of Patch on the news where he said that WW1 was terrible for the soldiers on both sides of the front. My two grandfathers fought on opposing sides on the Western Front, one in the British Army won the MC for killing Germans, the other won the Iron Cross for killing Brits or French, which did not prevent him for getting murdered by the Nazis.

    Patch stood head and shoulders above Gordon Brown who commented on his death by saying he ‘fought for our freedom’. What freedoms? Women and a large chunk of the working class couldn’t vote until 1918. Not sure that Britain was formally much more democratic than Germany in 1914.

  4. angeltoad said,

    Re Freedoms.
    On February 6, 1918. The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to women but only to those over 30 who “occupied premises of a yearly value of not less than £5″.
    But it was not until 1928 that the voting age for women was lowered to 21 in line with men.

    German women over the age of 20 won the vote on November 12th 1918, so in actual fact the Weimar Republic was ahead of us.

    Harry Patch was absolutely a pacifist at heart, and supported the use of International Law, diplomacy and the World Court in the Hague to resolve disputes between nations. He was not however totally against the justified use of weapons such as to assassinate an evil dictator. He waited until he was 100 years old to speak his truth and then reckoned that he had earned the right. A film about his life should be made really. He was an extraordinary man.

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