Harry Patch had a bustling career as one of the last living British WWI veterans. He was the last soldier to fight in the trenches. He died on July 25 at 111, just a couple of weeks after fellow veteran and oldest man in the world for a month Henry Allingham passed away at 113.
There are three known WWI veterans still alive: one British seaman living in Australia one American, and one Canadian.
But Patch’s archetypal trench warfare experience, combined with his lucid memory and firm convictions about the horrible wrongness of war, made him the most celebrated. When the BBC tracked him down for an interview in 1998, it turns out Patch hadn’t talked to anyone about his war experience at all. In 80 years. The BBC made a documentary about Patch called The Last Tommy in 2005, and then another documentary of Patch meeting with a 107-year-old German veteran in 2007.
In 2008, Patch’s autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, as told to Richard Van Emden, came out. Here’s a video of Van Emden promoting the book:
Then England’s poet laureate wrote a poem about Patch which the, what, composer laureate? set to music. All but a handful of the 79 Harry Patch YouTube videos right now are posthumous tributes. And now Radiohead has released a song, “Harry Patch (In Memory Of).”
In his interview Van Emden acknowledges the quirks of fate that made The Last Tommy a lucid, powerful rememberer, not someone else, a senile symbol. But he still said that while Patch was alive; now he’s gone, and his memories with him. All we’re left with are stories, which are not the same thing.
I didn’t know or even try to know whether there were still people with a firsthand memory of the brutal trench warfare of WWI when I began making Souvenir (November 2001), about the Battle of the Somme. [Patch fought at Passchendaele, not the Somme.] There were few enough veterans for my purpose, which was to see a site of horrific death and destruction after all the people who remembered it had disappeared.
I’ve left these threads alone for a while, but lately, as I’ve been plugging ahead on other installments of the Souvenir Series, I’ve had the urge to follow them again. As it turns out, a collection of essays was published in January on this very subject. War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration includes “The Ninetieth Anniversary of The Battle of The Somme,” by Dan Todman, a military historian at the University of London whose blog is named Trench Fever.
It’s the absence of firsthand rememberers that frames Todman’s whole survey of the contours of “memory”:
Here, then, are four problematic areas: how to define “memory: how it works for individuals and groups; the relationship between history, memor, family, and trauma in the production of ideas about the unlived past; and possible explanations for the “memory boom.”
The 2006 anniversary is a particularly useful one for considerations of what memory and “memory” mean, in both popular and academic terms. Ceremonies in Britain and in France and the media reporting of them made frequent references to the need to “remember the battle and those who had died during it. But the number of those who could actually do so was now extremely limited. The commemorations in 2006 were the first major anniversary at which no veteran of the 1916 battle was present.
Buy War Memory and Popular Culture: Essays on Modes of Remembrance and Commemoration at Amazon; I just did. [amazon]