from the Guardian 8 November 2001
The Last Stand
Of the millions of British servicemen who fought in the first world war, only a handful remain to witness this Sunday's remembrance day. Stephen Moss went to a gathering of these centenarian heroes, and spoke at length to three of them.
Five million men fought in the British armed forces in the first world war. Today about 160 are still alive, the youngest of them 101. In 1998, when on the 80th anniversary of the armistice France awarded the Légion d'honneur to all Britons who had fought in defence of France, there were more than 300. In a few years' time, there will be none, and the "Great" war, the war that so palpably failed to end all wars, will no longer have living witnesses to its horrors.
A colleague said it must be humbling to meet these men, and so it was. Not just because in their late teens they experienced trench warfare, engaged in acts of casual heroism, were strengthened by the barbarities they saw, but because of the lives they went on to lead. They have reached a kind of hyper-age, where they have outlived wives and second wives, outlived children too, yet still display an inner strength and thirst for life, an unwillingness to give best, that is truly remarkable.
I went to meet four veterans, but have only written up three of the interviews. The experience of the fourth, Philip Bristow, did not quite fit with these three old soldiers because he was a flyer with the Royal Naval Air Service who joined up as a 17-year-old in 1917 and flew reconnaissance missions in the North Sea and the Dover Straits. In a memoir, he says he received a crash course in navigation and the theory of flight at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich. Given the unreliability of these new-fangled flying machines, a crash course was what he needed - he came down three times while flying missions.
But there was another reason not to recount Bristow's experiences. He is dying, could not rise from his bed, could not be photographed, could barely speak. "Read my memoir", he said, "that will tell the story of my life." He will be 102 on November 22, but his daughter, with whom he lives in Weymouth, doubts whether he will make it. "Until the past four months he has been marvellous, but now he seems to have given up," his son-in-law told me. Not quite, though. We did speak briefly, and he said that if he could just have a gin and tonic he would be able to do the interview.
The other three are in remarkably good shape. Jack Davis, president of the first world war veterans association, is 106 and on Sunday will be giving the oration before the last post is sounded at the Menin Gate in Ypres, where so many of his comrades fell.
When I met him, Harry Patch, 103, was wearing his Légion d'honneur with pride - his other medals were lost long ago. Douglas Thomson, also 103 and as sharp as a blade, had been in uniform in the second world war too, yet was admirably matter of fact about his wartime experiences and, in recounting his life, gave as much emphasis to his work as an electrical engineer.
What struck me about all three was that, while they had fought for king and country, and had to some extent identified with their battalion or company, what had really mattered was a small band of intimates. In Thomson's case, it was a group of eight runners, carrying messages from the frontline to headquarters a mile or so back - men who were so good at listening for the approach of shells that all eight survived the war. For Davis, who fought in every major engagement on the western front, it was his two brothers fighting alongside him. For Patch, it was the four men with whom he formed a machine gun team. Three were killed when a German shell hit the gun on September 22 1917. He says he accepted the Légion d'honneur in their memory, and that for him September 22 is Remembrance Day.
For 70 years the men who fought in the first world war were largely forgotten. It was not their heroism that was the predominant memory of that war, but the waste of so many lives - 1.8m German, 1.7m Russian, 1.4m French, 1.2m Austro-Hungarian, 800,000 British, 650,000 Italian, 340,000 Romanian, 320,000 Turkish, hundreds of thousands of other nationalities, and treble these numbers of wounded, many of whom never fully recovered. The roll-call of dead and maimed and mentally annihilated is staggering.
Those who survived either did not want to talk about the war - Patch says he never did and has never watched a war film in his life - or were discouraged from doing so. Another war had intervened where unqualified good was pitted against unspeakable evil and a clear-cut victory won. Only in the past 10 years, as their numbers have dwindled, have they been encouraged to speak, by writers and programme-makers, their testimonies recorded, their deeds honoured.
Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the first world war veterans association, has been instrumental in winning them their due and encouraging them to talk. I met Goodwin at the recent launch of a book of first world war songs, compiled by the actor-turned-military historian Max Arthur. Goodwin is 72 and would be my recommendation for a "people's honour". He has spent the past 15 years trying to give these increasingly frail, too often forgotten men a sense of self-esteem, and speaks movingly of the trips he has made with them to the battlefields.
"I was saddened by the way these people were shunted into nursing homes," says Goodwin. "Whilst there was a lot of TLC, there was a complete lack of any recognition of the significance of their lives. People who fought at Gallipoli, the Somme, Passchendaele - history was bypassing them. I thought, 'This is wrong, we've got to do something about it'." That something was the association, which he and his son founded in 1986.
"We found these old soldiers who'd never been back to France and we thought we'd try to do something about it. My son brought seven down from the north, I recruited seven in the south, and 14 of us went over to France to the war graves. They were in their early 90s, showing signs of frailty, and three were terminally ill. I thought we'd never get them over the Channel, let alone across to France and back in a week. But I was amazed at the way they seemed to close ranks, stiffen their shoulders and forget their infirmities. It was like witnessing a miracle."
Six veterans attended the book launch at the Imperial War Museum: Davis and Albert "Smiler" Marshall, who is 103 and believed to be the last British soldier to draw his sabre in a cavalry charge; Dick Clifford and Doug Roberts, who joined in 1918 and fought in France as the German army made its final desperate push; and Bill Stone and Fred Bunday - youngsters at 101, naval men who served in the latter stages of the war. Stone, in particular, was in wonderful shape physically - testimony to the benefits of a long retirement (he retired from the navy in 1945!).
The launch was a strange, almost surreal affair. The six veterans were the centre of attraction, sitting (or, in the young sailors' case, standing) in front of an artillery gun and lustily singing first world war songs while curious children milled around until they were moved by the photographer from the Sun.
It was impossible to speak at length to the six that day, amid the singing and book signing, but Goodwin gave me Davis's address and those of three others, in the hope that we could talk quietly about their remarkable lives. Deafness and failing memories mean that the interviewer must be patient, but I did indeed feel humbled by the stories that follow, by the lives they had led, and most of all by the sight of a 101-year-old who after an active, spirited, unflinching life had finally accepted that he could not rise from his bed. The other three will have to speak for Philip Bristow - and their 5m comrades.
Read the interviews here