Patch was born on June 17, 1898, the tail end of the 63-year reign of Queen Victoria, followed by the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. His father William was a master stonemason and his mother was in service as the head of a staff of servants at a well-to-do doctor’s. A family legend said that Harry’s great-grandfather, a carpenter, made his own coffin. Until it came time to assume permanent occupancy of it, he hinged the lid and stood it at the top of the stairs as a wardrobe.

The Patch family belonged to a small rural community in Somerset county near Bath in the west of England. It was parochial in the extreme, with little interest in what happened in the wider world. The village children enjoyed adventures in the stone quarries and collected bird eggs, and father grew vegetables and fruit and kept bees and chickens in the garden. World events went mostly unnoticed. Harry was a one-year-old when the Second Boer War broke out in 1899, five when Wilbur and Orville Wright undertook the first powered flight in 1903 and he was nearly 14 when the Titanic sank in 1912.

Harry had two brothers. The family income grew, enabling a move to a larger house, and they had a housemaid and a cook. But, in common with the times, lighting and heating in the house were basic and it wasn’t until Harry became an apprentice plumber that he put in gas lamps for his parents.

There was no internal plumbing and outdoor toilets were common in the countryside. Patch tells the story of a man who stayed at a farm one night, got up in the night to spend a penny, went outside in the dark and found what he thought was the toilet. He did his business but unfortunately it was discovered in the light of day that he had gone into an outside pantry and offloaded on the family’s Christmas puddings.

Patch was 16 and about 18 months into his plumbing apprenticeship when the First World War broke out in 1914. Many boys aged 16 and 17 enlisted but he says he didn’t welcome the war at all. He didn’t feel the need to get into khaki and go fighting before it was “all over by Christmas”, as popular opinion believed. His upbringing in a very sheltered family gave him no inclination to kill people he didn’t know. He wasn’t even patriotic, he says with honesty.

But in June 1916 he turned 18 and eventually found himself conscripted into the army. Patch was now a “Tommy”, the term used to refer to the British common soldiers of the Great War of 1914-18 and which displays affection and respect for their bravery. This was much as the Duke of Wellington had in mind when he suggested the name back in 1815, the year he and his soldiers defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

After training, Patch arrived in France in June 1917 as part of a machine-gun team in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Life in the trenches has been well-documented: shells, bullets, “over the top”, barbed wire, hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, gas, rats, lice, mud, cold, poor food and water, no washing or sanitation, boredom even – and unprecedented slaughter of a generation of young men. And then the third battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele as it is known, was launched on July 31, 1917. Patch made out his will.

It was sickening to see the dead and wounded, some semi-conscious and beyond all help, he recounts. Men didn’t just get a nice bullet hole in their tunic and die, they could be blown to pieces, their bodies ripped open, their insides out. The wounded in no man’s land moaned at night and cried for help in English and German.

Harry and his fellow soldiers came across a lad ripped open from shoulder to waist by shrapnel. “Shoot me,” he said. He was beyond all help and before they could get out a revolver he was dead. “Mother,” was the last word he uttered. Later, a German soldier came at Patch with a fixed bayonet. Patch had a gun and could have shot the German dead. He had just a few seconds to think. The “Mother” incident came into his mind and he allowed the German his life, only shooting him in the leg.

Eventually Patch’s machine-gun team was hit by a shell. He lost three good mates. Nothing remained of them after the explosion. Harry got a piece of shrapnel in the chest that a doctor removed with a scalpel while four men held down the wounded man, gripping a limb each. His four months on the Western Front were at an end.

Post-war, Patch married in 1919 and had two sons. He returned to work as a plumber. The Second World War saw Harry in action on the home front as a fire-fighter during the bombing of Bath. He also warmly describes his friendship with American GIs preparing to go to France for D-Day, and, years later, his tears when he saw their graves.

He didn’t like to discuss his war experiences, keeping silent on the subject for 80 years until the BBC approached him in 1998 for a documentary, and he realised he was part of a fast-dwindling group of veterans. In November 2004, at the age of 106, he went to meet and shake hands with Charles Kuentz, a 107-year-old who had fought on the German side at Passchendaele. Patch was doubtful at first about meeting an enemy soldier but said afterwards that Kuentz was a very nice gentleman “all for a united Europe and peace – and so am I".

In July 2007, marking the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Passchendaele, Patch revisited the site in Flanders to pay his respects to the fallen on both sides. He was accompanied by a historian, Richard van Emden. An emotional Patch described war as the "calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings" and said that "war isn't worth one life".

The next month, his autobiography was published, making him one of the oldest authors ever. It is this book that has now been republished a century after the end of the war with a new introduction and previously unseen images of Harry. His first-person memories are accompanied by third-person context from van Emden, who has written a dozen books on the war and interviewed over 270 of its veterans.

Harry Patch celebrated his 111th birthday on June 17, 2009 and died the following month on July 25. By then, fame and his great age had opened many doors, and he had met the Queen and other members of the British Royal Family. He had gone to 10 Downing Street and met Prime Minister Tony Blair, to whom he spoke out frankly about the injustice of justifiably traumatised soldiers being shot by their own officers for cowardice.

Patch’s book is much more than a military memoir. When Richard van Emden met him and put together the book in 2006, Patch’s memory went back to about 1902-03, and thus encompassed an entire century. Recalling the war proved to be a cathartic experience that allowed him to shed his anger about those devastating four months, and he was able to die a contented man.

This is a precious life history that will help ensure his name is remembered, as it deserves to be.

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