Friday, 5 September 2008

Book Review: The Last Fighting Tommy

There is nothing singularly remarkable about Harry Patch’s service in the Great War. At 18 he was called up (conscription was compulsory) to serve ‘King and Country’ and spent time on the Western Front in Passchendaele before being wounded in September 1917 and sent home to recuperate. The story of this Somerset man is replicated across millions of his generation. But the fact that at the age of 108 (he is now 110), as one of the oldest surviving veterans of the First World War, he decided to write an autobiography telling of his experience is remarkable. Only in recent years, since the age of 100, has Harry decided to tell his story. Like almost all who served the vivid remembrance of the battles is something which was not talked about. Harry Patch was born in 1898. In his training for military service, this plumber by trade, learned to use a Lewis Gun and be a second team member of six. He describes the closeness of this small group, the sharing of the cigarettes, pipe tobacco and cake sent from home, the mutual support in times of trouble, and the sadness afterwards learning that three of his comrades were blown up by a shell which injured Harry in the stomach with a two inch piece of shrapnel, removed without anaesthetic because there was none available. Life in the trenches is talked about and the fear that the men had of not surviving perhaps the next day. He mentions going ‘over the top’, those wounded and those shell shocked by the experience. This is not a book lurid in detail but oral history at its best.

‘The Last Fighting Tommy’ by Harry Patch with Richard Van Emden (Bloomsbury, 2008) is available in paperback. £7.99

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