On the 18th of July, Henry Allingham, aged 113, passed away. He had been, briefly, the oldest man in the world. A week later, Harry Patch also died. He was 111. Both men were veterans of the First World War. Only one British veteran of that war – Claude Choules, who lives in Australia – is now left alive.
The deaths were met with tributes from all the right places. Gordon Brown, Prince Charles and the Queen all said their bit. They spoke of “bravery”, “heroes” and “pride”. The Prime Minister described this as “a moment of reflection”, and he announced plans for a national memorial service, to commemorate all of those who fought.
There is always something a little uncomfortable about public commemoration. Not because we should not, individually or as a society, remember the soldiers of wars past. Of course we must remember. But state-led remembrance is selective remembrance. And it rarely recalls the most important things.
When we participate in these collective acts of tribute, we are always asked to remember the bravery of those who fought, but rarely the terror they felt or the awfulness of what they saw. We are asked to remember the sacrifice of those who died, but rarely the shameful waste that those deaths represent. At a time when British troops are fighting and dying in Afghanistan, in a war which appears to be both endless and aimless, that selectivity is telling.
Harry Patch was suspicious of state memory. He described Remembrance Day as “just show business”. For him, the 22nd of September was the day of remembrance. On that day in 1917, while crossing open ground, a shell exploded overhead. It killed three of his best friends and left Patch with a serious injury. It was an injury which would see him returned to Britain, and which may well have saved his life.
Though Patch refused to speak about the war until he was already over 100, it was clear that his recollection of the events had never dimmed. And how could it? He was haunted in particular by the memory of a young man from his regiment, torn apart and begging to be shot. The boy died with the word “Mother” on his lips. Experiences like that do not fade easily.
To remember bravery but forget fear, or to remember honour but not horror, is an insult to those who had to live with these experiences. And if we do forget them, then our acts of remembrance are hollow and worthless. The best tribute we can offer is to not forget.
A few weeks before these two men died, the government announced the launch of an inquiry into the war in Iraq, to be chaired by Sir John Chilcot. The inquiry will look carefully at the events that led up to the war, as well as at the conflict itself, and will take evidence from many of the people involved, including former Prime Minister Tony Blair. While there is inevitably some scepticism about the extent to which a government-sponsored inquiry can ever give the answers that people really want to hear, the stated aim at least is to provide a full and honest account of how British troops came to be fighting in the Middle East, and, according to the inquiry’s own website, “to identify lessons that can be learned from the Iraq conflict”.
Harry Patch and Henry Allingham knew more about war than any politician could ever know. They needed no inquiry; they had learned its lessons the hard way.
Two years ago, on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele, Harry Patch revisited the scene of the fighting, where he had been injured and hundreds of thousands of men had died. On that day in 2007, Patch delivered a verdict that was clearer and wiser than any we can hope to hear from Sir John Chilcot. It was a verdict informed by the horror of conflict, and by a long lifetime of reflection.
War is the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” he said. “War isn’t worth one life.” That is the only lesson that needs to be learned.