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.