And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

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Million Dollar Wound

My apologies to all who are looking for a funny post today, but it’s another important, historical day for me. Actually, the First of June was the day when it all started… but I’m getting ahead of my self…

One day, very long ago, a little boy was on his way someplace far away with his parents. He was still of the age when he didn’t really understand direction or distance beyond his neighborhood, so he wasn’t sure where he was when the car stopped and everyone got out and went into a big, funny smelling building. It was a bit like a hospital inside, but a bit like a hotel too. After his father talked to someone at a desk, they were shown to a room containing a bed, a chest of drawers, a couple of tables and chairs and an old, bent man.

The man was tall, though most folks are to a five year old. He was frail and thin and white stubble decorated his leathery cheeks. The adults spoke, hugs were given and then the old man’s gaze shifted to the uncomfortable boy. An introduction was made and the man extended a hand for the boy to shake.

The boy stopped cold as he looked at the offer. He had seen old men’s hands before but this was not right. As the old man extended his outstretched hand, all the fingers drooped down at an alarming angle. An unnatural angle. The palm and back of the hand its self looked odd as well. Bent and twisted as if it had been remolded clumsily after being bent.

Not wanting to be rude and aware of the eyes upon him from his parents and the old man, he took the hand and shook it. Perhaps not as well as he normally would have done, but still, he held it.

As you might have guessed, the little boy is me. That was my experience from so long ago. The old man was my Great-great uncle Edward. So far as I know, this was the only time I ever met him and my memories of his face are indistinct and blurred but for a few items. The hand stands out vividly in my mind’s eye.

Uncle Edward was a marine, or as they were commonly called back then, a leatherneck. He was not one of the thousands upon thousands of young boys who signed up for war in 1917 and 1918. No. He had signed up long before that. Uncle Edward had the distinction if riding with General “Blackjack” Pershing down in Mexico, chasing the outlaw Pancho Villa, long before the U.S. had cast its eyes to the conflict that would break across Europe in 1914. He was still in the Marines when the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) deployed in France late in the Great War and was right there in the front line when the American Marine Corp hit the veteran German forces for the first time in Belleau.

What happened next was dubbed the “Battle of the Belleau Wood” and it was the battle front that the U.S. cut it’s teeth on, waging what we consider modern warfare. Out of this particular conflict came some amazing deeds. It forced the German Army to consider the Americans to be a more than capable enemy and convinced the French and the British that they had finally gotten the help they needed.

When the Marines were ordered to the spot where they were to dig in, defeated and exhausted French troops started spilling through their lines. The French had been fighting for three years and were near the bottom of their manpower and morale. As a French commander withdrawing with his forces stopped to tell one of the U.S. Marines’ officers that they should retreat with them and seek better ground. The American was reported to reply, “Leave?! Hell, we just got here!”

The Battle started in ernest on the second of June and stretched until the end of the month. It was brutal fighting and the losses were terrible for all sides. The American forces knew that the world was watching to see what kind of fighters they were and they were determined to set the tone for what an American was, here on this field of battle. They did. In the end, almost 10,000 U.S. troops were killed or wounded. It is unknown how many German boys died, though it is thought to have been far worse. One German soldier who was there said that the U.S. troops “Fought like devils and killed anything that moved.” The respect for their new opponents was rooted to that wood and would carry over to the rest of the war and into the next.

One of the men who survived was my Great-great Uncle. A piece of shrapnel had passed right through the back of his right hand and come out the palm. It would never be the same. He went to a dressing station, then to a hospital and then home. It was what was called a “Million dollar wound”. He was out of the fighting for good and still had most of his faculties. It probably saved his life.

I can’t tell you how proud I am to have met my Great-great uncle Edward. Though the memory is fuzzy, I shall always hold it dear. Now, I wish I could talk to him and ask a thousand questions, but that time is past. The stories have gone away with him.

I have been to the Belleau Wood. The French have renamed it “Bois de la Brigade de Marine, or Wood of the Marine Brigade”, in honor of the work done there by young American soldiers. I have stood in the trenches where 90 years ago, he stood, waiting for his chance to fight. I have signed his name in the book that they keep there and visited the chapel covered in the names of his friends and squad mates. I am glad for the quite of that wood now. The scars of the conflict, grassed over and root bound are still there to see. I am proud of him and I think of him today.

Take care, Uncle Ed. You were quite a Marine.

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