The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch & Richard van Emden
I usually avoid books with more than one author. However, I was interested to read about Henry (Harry) Patch, an ordinary man who got coaught up in both World War I and lived through World War II. I found a book written about him just after his death. However, I then noticed The Last Fighting Tommy: The Life of Harry Patch, the Oldest Surviving Veteran of the Trenches. Harry Patch was the last British soldier alive to have fought in the trenches of the First World War. He was one of very few people who could directly recall the horror of that conflict.
The delightful thing about this book is that the chapters about Harry’s life are by him. The historical chapters and historical background is provided by Richard van Emden who is a British author and television documentary producer. He specializes in the First World War. The personal account and a knowledgable historian, is a good combination. The strength of this book lies in the ordinariness of its subject. History is full of hype, stories sold as block-busters, embellished beyond plausibility, myth usurping truth. Not so thoughout The Last Fighting Tommy.
Harry was born in 1898, during the reign of Queen Victoria and a year before my maternal grandmother. His childhood was spent in the Somerset countryside of Edwardian England. He left school in 1913 to become an apprentice plumber but three years later was conscripted, serving as a machine gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Harry Patch comes across as a sensitive, humble man. Apparently he did not want to tell his story. However, by pure accident, he became the single living connection to an unimaginable experience in another time: life in the World War I trenches. He was persuaded to tell his story; understated, honest, un-heroically.
He describes life in the mud and trenches during the Battle of Passchendaele. He saw a great many of his comrades die, and in one dreadful moment the shell that wounded him also killed his three closest friends. In vivid detail he describes daily life in the trenches, the terror of being under intense artillery fire, and the fear of going over the top. A large part of the book covers Harry’s experiences in World War I as he was forced to give up on his career and go to fight. The chapter about when he went over the top is mesmerising as it captures one man’s experience of the horrors of the war, rather than an overview that we usually get. Then, after the Armistice he explains the soldiers’ frustration at not being quickly demobbed. This led to a mutiny in which even Harry was caught up. The Last Fighting Tommy is not a history book, it is a book about one man’s experiences of history, although the co-author, Richard van Emden does provide relevant historical detail and background.
Harry shared with the reader about his whole life without boring them with every little detail: he revealed what he thought would be most interesting and it works really well. There is a great section on World War II where Harry describes being a firefighter and dealing with the aftermath of the bombings on Bath. World War II saw Harry in action on the home front as a fire-fighter during the bombing of Bath. He also warmly described his friendship with American GIs preparing to go to France, and, years later, his tears when he saw their graves.
Late in life Harry achieved fame, meeting the Queen and taking part in the BBC documentary The Last Tommies, finally shaking hands with a German veteran of the artillery and speaking out frankly to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair about the soldiers shot for cowardice in the First World War. This was a well-done book which told the life of an ordinary man who lived through extraordinary things. On the one hand it is history told through the eyes of someone who was there, whilst on the other hand he represents all the men who fought in the trenches. I found The Last Fighting Tommy a fascinating read and highly recommend it to all who enjoy history and biographies.