By NIGEL BLUNDELL
Last refreshed at 22:05 28 July 2007
You have to strain to hear Harry Patch. At 109 a long time old, the last surviving Tommy from the detestations of the trenches in the To start with World War is developing progressively frail.
But his mind is each bit as sharp today as it was 90 a long time back this week when, as a 19-year-old conscript, he was requested over the top at the Third Fight of Ypres.
The battle, better known essentially as Passchendaele, has move toward becoming a precept for silly slaughter.
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More than half a million men were slaughtered or, on the other hand harmed amid five months of battling over a maybe a couple miles of quagmire.
The English commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, had propelled his “Flanders Offensive” to mitigate depleted French troops in the south what’s more, stop the Germans sending U-Boats from the Belgian ports.
But the objective before long shrank to the silly errand of taking the destroyed Belgian town of Passchendaele.
With the offer assistance of The Mail on Sunday, Harry Fix returned for the to begin with time to the spot where his unit held up with expanding anxiety, some time recently being requested to progress out of the near security of the trenches, over a stream called the Steenbeek what’s more, into No Man’s Land.
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He came to pay a profoundly individual goodbye to his three nearest companions â€“ slaughtered by a German shell â€“ what’s more, to bear witness to the revulsions of trench fighting for one last time.
It was outlandish not to be moved as Harry studied the scene from his wheelchair, his eyes moistening over at the agonizing recollections of 1917.
Even in spite of the fact that the arrive that was once part of the English front line is presently the corner of a farmer’s field with the revamped Langemarck church in the background, Harry perceived it immediately.
“Yes, this is where it happened,” he said. “I can see it in my mind’s eye. I keep in mind the dissonance of noise, so uproarious you couldn’t hear the man next to you speaking.
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“Shells were zooming over us towards the German lines just 750 yards away, what’s more, their machine-gun slugs were coming in the inverse direction. Be that as it may what I keep in mind most was the waiting, the anxiety, the fear.
“I have a memory of crossing that stream. It was flooded, with the trees on either side crushed to pieces. We crossed on barges since the connect had been blown up.
“On the far side of the stream we halted to anticipate the arrange to advance. The siege to cover us took your breath away. The commotion was ferocious. There was misgiving in everyone’s eyes what’s more, repulsiveness in a few.”
Endless exuberant rain what’s more, an Unified flood of more than four million shells that gone before the starting strike on July 31, 1917, turned the combat zone into a entanglement that would marsh down the offensive.
Before Partnered powers at last caught the town in November 1917, numerous troopers were sucked under what’s more, drowned, what’s more, guns, tanks what’s more, steeds moreover sank in the mud.
On the morning of Regal 16, Harry’s contingent of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was given the undertaking of propelling an attack on the town of Langemarck.
“The ground we had to cover was just shell holes,” Harry recalled.
“There were bodies, both our possess what’s more, German, from the to begin with wave. It was sickening to see your claim dead what’s more, wounded, a few crying for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious what’s more, others past all hope.
“There were men who had been tore to pieces â€“ it wasn’t just a case of seeing them with a flawless bullet-hole in their tunic. Parts of individuals were crying for offer assistance be that as it may you couldn’t stop.
“It was hellish,” he includes in his slight Somerset burr.
“Just one long bad dream from the thunder of the firearms as the fight started to the sound of the injured crying out. You could do nothing to offer assistance them. You just had to go forward through all that mud what’s more, blood. It was totally sickening.
“I keep in mind one chap from our regiment in specific â€“ the memory has frequented me all my life. He was in a pool of blood, tore open from his bear to his midriff by shrapnel.
When we got to him he said, ‘Shoot me.’ Be that as it may some time recently we could draw a revolver, he was dead.
“And the last word he articulated was ‘Mother’. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of amaze what’s more, joy. I think â€“ no, I’m beyond any doubt â€“ that his mother was in the next world to welcome him what’s more, he knew it.
“I’ve continuously recalled that cry what’s more, that demise is not the end â€“ at minimum I trust that’s how it was with my three mates.”
Harry, who had been an student handyman in Shower some time recently conscription, was sent to the front line around his 19th birthday in June 1917.
He said: “I didn’t need to be there what’s more, I never imagined I did. I was recruited in 1916, by which time the eagerness for the war had faded at home.
“I was anxious yet I didn’t need to uncover my emotions to the others.
“It doesn’t matter how much preparing you’ve had, you can’t get ready for the reality â€“ the noise, the filth, the uncertainty, the casualties. The conditions were terrible while we were holding up for the offensive.
“It sprinkled what’s more, rained. Water streamed along the base of the trench. I’d stand on an ammo box until it sank into the mud, at that point put another on top what’s more, stand on that.
“There was no sanitation what’s more, the put stank. You were filthy. From landing in France in June until coming out in September, I never had a shower nor clean clothes.
“I was put in a Lewis weapon group with three others. We moved toward becoming extremely close â€“ it sounds strange, yet we had a settlement that we wouldn’t slaughter anyone, not in the event that we could offer assistance it.
“We’d fire short, hit them in the legs or, on the other hand fire over their heads, yet not slaughter unless it was them or, on the other hand us.”
On the day they went over the top, Harry’s group were taught to give covering fire for their comrades, who overran the foe trenches what’s more, progressed toward becoming included in hand-to-hand fighting.
“We lay down for cover behind a dead German. I had just changed a magazine at the point when one of them came out of the trench what’s more, came straight for us with settled bayonet.
“He couldn’t have had any ammunition, something else he would have shot us. I drew my gun what’s more, shot him in the right shoulder.
“He dropped his rifle yet still came staggering on. He called out something to me in German â€“ I don’t assume it was complimentary. I had three live rounds cleared out in that gun what’s more, could have slaughtered him with the first.
“He was as it were 15 yards away what’s more, I couldn’t miss, not with a Webley benefit revolver, not at that range.
“I thought, ‘What should I do?’ I had four seconds to make up my mind, what’s more, I gave him his life.
“I shot him above the lower leg what’s more, above the knee what’s more, brought him down. He would have been passed back to a PoW camp what’s more, rejoined his family after the war.
“I’ve regularly pondered regardless of whether he figured it out I gave him his life. Six weeks later, my three best mates were slaughtered by a German bomb. In the event that that had happened some time recently I met that German, I would have damn well murdered him.”
The ambush by Harry’s men was over by mid-morning what’s more, the survivors held up all evening for a counter-attack that never came.
“We were sitting in the midst of a ocean of shell holes, up to our knees in gluey, sticky mud. The stench of spoiling bodies was terrible. Right over the battlefield, the bodies of the dead what’s more, of the injured would sink out of sight.’
Harry is one of as it were a modest bunch of To begin with World War veterans still alive. Charge Stone, 106, served in the Naval force what’s more, was not included in combat, while Henry Allingham, 111, was a workman in the Illustrious Maritime Air Service.
William Young, a previous radio administrator in the Illustrious Flying Corps, passed on last week matured 107.
For his trip back to Flanders, Harry was went with by his friend, student of history Richard van Emden, his
co-author on The Last Battling Tommy.
Richard scoured maps what’s more, photos taken at the time to pinpoint Harry’s fight position.
Staring out over the fields, Harry said: “This was all mud, mud what’s more, more mud, blended together with blood.
“We battled for a maybe a couple yards of soil what’s more, that cost the lives of so many, counting my three best friends. There was no pardon for such butcher for so little gain.”
He returned to Britain six weeks after that to begin with assault. The German shell that murdered his three best companions had moreover cleared out Harry with awful shrapnel wounds that were afterward worked on without anaesthetic.
When he lies in bed at his mind home in Wells, Somerset, a streak of light outside his room can put him straight back to the abhorrences of Passchendaele.
“Anyone who tells you they weren’t frightened is a doomed liar. You were terrified all the time,” he said.
“We lived hour by hour. You saw the sun rise, ideally you’d see it set. In the event that you saw it set, you trusted you’d see it rise. A few men would, a few wouldn’t.”
After the war Harry went back to plumbing in Somerset what’s more, outlasted two spouses what’s more, two sons.
He said: “I went 80 a long time what’s more, never said the war, not indeed to my family. The recollections were as well vivid. I packaged it all up for so long. I never indeed observed a war film.
“But the war is something I can presently talk about. In 2004 I went back to Flanders for a commemoration benefit what’s more, met a German, Charles Kuentz, who had battled against us.
“We shook hands what’s more, concurred on so much about that dreadful war. A pleasant old chap, he was. Why he ought to have been my enemy, I don’t know.
“He told me, ‘I battled you since I was told to, what’s more, you did the same.’ It’s tragic yet true.
“What the for hell’s sake we battled for, I presently don’t know.”
The Last Battling Tommy, by Harry Fix with Richard van Emden, distributed Monday July 30 by Bloomsbury, evaluated Â£16.99.