The death yesterday of Harry Patch, last Britisih veteran serviceman of the First World War, is a milestone which can’t fail to move anyone with any historical imagination. I rather sympathise, in principle, with Damian Thompson’s suggestion of a state funeral in the Abbey, family willing.
Some five and three quarter million British War Medals 1914-20 were issued. The death of Mr Patch the plumber marks the end of all that, as living memory. My father, 28 years a soldier, took us to beatings of retreat in the sixties where anyone over 70 had seen service in the First World War. Thank goodness the voices of that generation have been increasingly recorded since the groundbreaking 1964 BBC Documentary The Great War.
Some 30 years ago I had a close personal encounter with Harold Macmillan at a St Catherine’s Day dinner in Balliol. With utter simplicity and a painfully clear memory Mr Macmillan, who had been shot up as a guardsman during the retreat from Mons, described the lives, hopes and characters of fellow students from the lost class of 1914, under half of whom survived, pinpointing who had lived on which staircase, and what talents had been lost by their deaths.
One of the great experiences of my ten years in Reading was meeting, eventually officiating at the funeral of, Charlie Evans, like Harry Patch a survivor of Passchendaele. He returned passionate to do something for his mates who hadn’t made it (three quarters of his platoon); joined the Post Office Union and the Labour Party, and ended up as a much loved mayor of Reading — there’s a road on the Amersham Road estate named after him.
The world I grew up in may well have been a more respectful, safer, more decent place because pretty much everyone a certain age, soldier or civilian, male or female, from plumbers to politicians, had undergone the experience of real danger and gut-wrenching fear; of doing without and having to make the best of things. Nobody would wish that on a dog, but this experience generaly gave most of them a particular perspective on life and people. Unlike our politicians, they did not acquire knowledge of war primarily from movies. Large numbers of young men were abruptly brought to an awareness of their own limitations, the need to look out for others, tolerance of different people they would never have met in a month of Sundays had they not been drafted into the Services. Some lost God, and some found God, but many found something of themselves we struggle to understand.
This whole stream of our culture is now almost extinguished, although there may be a few civilians who lived through it left. I am not sure where this leaves us in our own Great War for Civilisation. I am optimistic enough to believe young people have a great underlying spirit and capacity for altruism, that comes out when really necessary. I love the way our children’s generation network and care for each other. Plainly the ravages of ego, selfishness and materialism come much more easily to us, and them, than to Mr Patch’s generation — another reason to respect our young people, who have so much more confused and confusing a world of which to make sense.
Living in a society which generally idolises the latest and trivialises the past, we all have an amnesia problem. It’s hard to think Mr Patch’s death will help with that, but I hope some strand of corporate memory and respect will transmit forward, and increase our chances of recovering some greater measure of our core values — corporate understanding, fellow feeling, dignity, and self-respect — before it’s too late. Just pray it doesn't take a disaster like the wars of the 20th Century to get us there...