Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Last of a Generation

Earlier today, 25 July, 111 year old Harry Patch died in England. While living for over a century--being a "supercentenarian"--is in itself cause for celebration, Patch is remarkable in another way as well. He was the last surviving man to have experienced the horror of fighting on the frontlines and trenches of WWI. (One of the British papers notes that there is still a surviving ambulance driver in the US and a naval officer in Australia, but neither saw the sort of action that Mr. Patch did.)

From the Queen herself to Prince Charles, Harry Patch is being remembered. General Sir Richard Dannatt, chief of the general staff said: "He was the last of a generation that in youth was steadfast in its duty in the face of cruel sacrifice and we give thanks for his life - as well as those of his comrades - for upholding the same values and freedom that we continue to cherish and fight for today." A winner of many medals and honors during his lifetime (including the French Legion d'honneur) friends noted that each time he was thusly honored, he knew it was for all of the friends he'd left on the battlefields of Europe.

And that's the astonishing thing, this is truly the end of a generation. Mr. Patch was one of the last people to be an eyewitness to some of the most shocking and horrifying warfare ever seen on the face of the earth. He fought at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, when 70,000 British troops were killed and managed to survive, though seriously wounded.

Much less surprisingly, Patch was, throughout his life--and even amidst the terror of war--staunchly anti-war. He noted in his autobiography that he didn't want to kill his German enemies, he'd try to shoot them in the legs to wound them.

There is also a planned memorial, noted The Times of London, for the "passing of a generation."

Obituaries are always so interesting to read, I think. My childhood piano teacher, Catherine Mackey, always read the obits from the local paper immediately. She was the church organist and had to know if she'd be playing at any funerals during the week so she could arrange her schedule accordingly. Now and then, since my weekly lesson coincided with the delivery of the local rag, she'd note something interesting while she quickly looked over the various notices. It was something that stuck with me and to this day I so marvel at the lives people have lived. Whether it's a major appreciation for a larger-than-life celebrity or a small town notice that only hits the basic high-points, I find obituaries to be rather fascinating. It's also a great reminder for us all to celebrate the people we love--at birthdays or anniversaries--and to showcase their accomplishments, passions, and special talents. Isn't that better than waiting until an obituary to alert the world to how singularly special our loved ones are? I think it is infinitely better.

Here's a link to the obituary to Mr. Patch's compatriot, Henry Allingham, who passed on last week at the brilliant age of 113. We can only hope that wherever both of these two gentleman are is a place of beauty and peace. Requiescat in pacem, Patch and Allingham.

(The last surviving British Tommy, Harry Patch attends the launch of The Royal British Legion Poppy Appeal, Weston Super Mare, Britain. 27 Oct 2007 Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/Rex Features)

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