Was Harry Patch the world's oldest pacifist?

IssueSeptember 2009
Comment by Emily Johns , Milan Rai

The funeral of the last British survivor of the trenches of the First World War was held in Wells Cathedral on Hiroshima Day (6 August) attended with pomp and circumstance, and solemn honours from politicians and the mainstream media. While they proclaimed their respect for Harry Patch, who died at the age of 111, political leaders and media commentators almost entirely ignored the core message to which Harry Patch devoted his last years.

The man who saw some of his best friends killed in front of him on the battlefield, fiercely believed that: “War is organised murder, and nothing else.” He gave thanks that he had never killed anyone during his time on the front (a marksman, he made a pact with fellow soldiers to shoot to injure rather than to kill).

Time and again, Harry Patch, who died as the oldest man in Europe and the third oldest man in the world, said: “War isn’t worth one life.” He said of the First World War: “It was not worth it, it was not worth one [life] let alone all the millions.”

He asked that his funeral be attended by soldiers from all sides of the First World War. He once observed: “It’s important that we remember the war dead on both sides of the line – the Germans suffered the same as we did.” Patch later added: “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.” The man who fought in the battle of Passchendaele, in which an estimated 500,000 soldiers died, said: “At the end, the peace was settled round a table, so why the hell couldn’t they do that at the start without losing millions of men?”

In his autobiography The Last Fighting Tommy, Harry Patch wrote that the “politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder.”

Harry Patch described Remembrance Day, 11 November, as “just showbusiness”. He saw war as the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.” He valued the opportunity to spread his message of peace and reconciliation to schoolchildren.

One of the few mainstream commentators to pay attention to Harry Patch’s message was Mary Riddell of The Times, who wrote a column on 27 July correctly entitled: “Had we listened to Harry Patch, we would not still be in Helmand”.

Riddell wrote: “Those leaders who paid tribute to him in death should have listened harder, through his long lifetime, to his anthem to the fallen.” We at Peace News are still listening, and we will continue to listen, to Harry Patch and to all those who reject war.