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lOn 25 July 2009, Henry John “Harry” Patch died. Aged 111, he was the last British survivor of the First World War trenches still living in the UK. Following the funeral held in Wells Cathedral he was buried near Combe Down where he was born.
For more than 80 years Harry refused to talk about his wartime experiences, refused to attend regimental reunions and avoided war films on the television. It wasn’t until he was over 100 that he broke his silence. In 1998 with the realisation that the group of veterans who had fought “the war to end all wars” was dwindling fast he spoke for the first time of the futility of war and the terrible loss of so many lives. Harry agreed to be interviewed for Veterans shown on BBC One. Anyone who saw this or heard a 2005 interview with Harry on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme cannot help but have been moved by his slow, whispered and eloquent anti-war message, “War is organised murder and nothing else”. Harry’s words resonate in ways the voices of others may not, because he spoke from first hand experience: he fought in the last and bloodiest British war offensive, the Third Battle of Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, in which an estimated 500,000 soldiers died.
Harry grew up in Combe Down, south-east of Bath. Combe Down was built by rags-to-riches entrepreneur Ralph Allen in the early 1700s to house himself and miners above the rich seams of oolitic limestone. Their efforts brought up increasing amounts of the distinctive honey-coloured stone that built the village and the majority of buildings in the city of Bath. Over the years as a result of the flawed “room and pillar” mining method, much of Combe Down fell victim to severe subsidence. In 1998 the Combe Down Stone Mines Stabilisation Project (CDSMSP) established. The brief was to remove the threat to life and property of those living, working or travelling through the Combe Down area by stabilising the now disused mines.
Part of this project included a public art element with music, an exhibition, photography, a sound installation, film, stone sculpture and also poetry by Andy Croft.
Andy Croft worked with school children on an historical pageant, Combe Down: the Hole Story. He also put together an anthology of poetry by these same school children, villagers and miners who worked on the Project; and Andy contributed three new poems of his own. Two of these appear in the booklet, Time in the Shape of a Mine, one does not. This poem, entitled The Last Act of Harry Patch was left out at the last minute because it was deemed “too political”. Peace News asked Mary Stacey, CDSMSP project manager, for a comment. She said “it was an internal [Bath & North East Somerset] council decision. The poem was seen as slightly political and different in tone from other poems Andy included.”
When asked for his thoughts Andy Croft said “In a sense the poem’s exclusion didn’t weaken the book as it was mainly about the stone mines, but of course it was a little bit frustrating. I was told it was seen as ‘too political’ which doesn’t make much sense as any position you take about anything is political. More than anything the poem was against sanctimoniousness. I wrote it in the week Gordon Brown was wiping away crocodile tears over sending yet more troops to Afghanistan, it seemed an obvious connection to make, but it didn’t surprise me that the poem was dropped.”
The Last Act of Harry Patch first appeared in the Morning Star.
The Last Act of Harry Patch
“The noblest of all our generations has left us, but they will never be forgotten” – Gordon Brown
“We go to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” – Hamlet
“War is organised murder and nothing else” – Harry Patch
His murder was arranged at Ypres
With half a million other men,
But now he’s dead, the simpering vipers
Come crawling out from Number 10
To bury him with loud laudation
And hymns to reconciliation -
The poisonous, forked-tongued response
Of those who tried to kill him once,
Who justify each round of killing
From Langemarck to Afghanistan,
Then shed a tear for one old man.
It’s hard to say which is more chilling.
These snakes are deaf to what he said.
There’s nothing else. And now he’s dead.