[Paleopsych] Guardian: Last veterans to tell their war stories

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Last veterans to tell their war stories

    As the nation falls silent today to remember the First World War dead,
    historians are battling to record the memories of the 19 survivors
    David Smith
    Sunday November 14, 2004

    His head was bowed, his hand trembled a little on his walking stick
    and his blue eyes were deep with sadness and reflection. Henry
    Allingham, 108 years old, stood last Thursday for the sounding of the
    'Last Post' and two minutes of silent remembrance. The time was the
    11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

    Then Jennifer Pike, 15, played Bach's Sarabande from Partita No 2 in D
    minor on a violin handcrafted out of wood from trees growing on the
    First World War battlefields of Ypres and the Somme.

    As the sound poured through the Imperial War Museum in London,
    Allingham sank back into his wheelchair and wiped a tear from his
    right eye. The music finished and there was a moment of uncertain
    silence until an exclamation of 'Bravo!' prompted applause all around
    the vast atrium.

    Allingham is the oldest veteran of the First World War. Two years ago
    he was one of 60 known veterans in Britain. Last year, the number
    halved to 30, and last week it dipped below 20, when Tom Kirk, once a
    surgeon on the destroyer HMS Lydiard, died aged 105.

    It was a sober reminder that time is running out for the men, all born
    in the reign of Queen Victoria, who fought 'the war to end all wars',
    and that the link with firsthand experience of the Western Front, with
    all its comradeship and horrors, will one day be severed.

    As the nation pauses today for Remembrance Sunday, the race is on to
    preserve these heroes' stories. Max Arthur, military author and
    historian, is interviewing the last veterans of the Great War for a
    book, The Last Post, due to be published next October. He is
    determined that these survivors of the conflict that left 31 million
    people dead, wounded or missing - a tenth of them British - should
    claim their place in posterity.

    'I did the book Forgotten Voices of the Great War and realised the
    survivors are a depleting band, so we need to get them while we can,'
    Arthur said.

    'One dreads the day when there are none left, but inevitably it will
    come. This year is the 90th anniversary of the start of the First
    World War and it can only go on another year or two, although some of
    the veterans look as if they will go on for ever. They all have a
    unique story. Ninety per cent of them are still compos mentis. Some
    find it easier to talk than others and still have vivid details of
    their time on the Western Front. There was no particular reason why
    they should have been the ones to survive and they're grateful to have
    got through.'

    The other saviour of the veterans' legacy is Dennis Goodwin, 78,
    secretary of the First World War Veterans' Association. 'Eighteen
    years ago, I found some men in their eighties in a nursing home,' he
    said. 'The staff were very good, but words like "Gallipoli", "Somme"
    and "Passchendaele" meant nothing to them. It seemed a shame these
    names were going to disappear into obscurity.

    'My phone number was put in a newspaper and it has never stopped
    ringing since. Relatives have told me it has extended the veterans'
    lives by giving them an interest: like all good orchids, plenty of
    light and tender, loving care and they flourish. They get under your
    skin and in your blood. They become like your dad.'

    Goodwin, of Rustington, West Sussex, has witnessed the total steadily
    dwindle to 19, but says that, oddly, it can also rise. 'The age
    process is kicking in stronger each succeeding year, but we are
    finding new veterans, too. We've got a network of helpers all around
    the country: they read in the local paper that someone has turned 103
    or 104 and try to find out if they were a First World War veteran.

    'In 2003, we found some new ones, so we replaced quite a few who died.
    We recently found another one, Henry Newcombe, who joined in August
    1918 and served for three or four months.'

    At the Imperial War Museum last week, Goodwin linked arms with
    Allingham as the old soldier from Eastbourne, East Sussex, went on a
    walkabout to inspect a British 18-pounder mark II field gun and a
    French 75mm field gun that were used during the slaughter on the
    Western Front.

    They were met by schoolchildren, including a six-year-old girl.
    Goodwin said to her: 'Do you know the age difference? One hundred and
    two years. You've got a lot of catching up to do!' As the girl smiled,
    Allingham pulled a funny face and shook her by the hand.

    The seemingly invincible Victorian, wearing his war medals including
    the French Légion d'Honneur, said: 'For a long time, I wanted to
    forget the war, but Dennis did a lot to take me out of my rut.

    'He made me feel disrespectful that I didn't do more to remember, and
    he's done the same for a lot of people. Now I do what I can to make
    sure the lads aren't forgotten.'

    Last of the british ... and the solitary german survivor

    Air mechanic Henry Allingham, 108 Aboard HMS Kingfisher during
    Jutland, then serviced and recovered planes in the Ypres and Somme
    salients. Recalls falling into a shell hole: 'It had rats, bodies,
    arms and legs.' Later a car salesman. Lives in Eastbourne.

    Sgt Alfred Anderson, 108 Fought at the Somme with the Black Watch.
    Batman to Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, brother of the future Queen
    Mother. Suffered shrapnel wounds to his neck and arms. Later a city
    council clerk. Lives in Alyth, Perthshire.

    Pte George Charles, 104 Joined the Durham Light Infantry. Did not see
    combat. Worked as a chartered accountant and now lives in a nursing
    home in Halesworth, Suffolk. Traced by the First World War Veterans
    Association in the past year.

    Pte Bert Clark, 104 Was called up after the German offensives of 1918.
    Later served in Ireland and India. Lives in a nursing home in Rushton.
    Traced in the past year.

    Midshipman Kenneth Cummins, 104 Was torpedoed while aboard The Viceroy
    of India and was rescued from lifeboats. Later he had to retrieve
    nurses' bodies after a hospital ship was sunk. Lives in Great Bedwyn,

    Gunner William Elder, 107 Worked as a gardener, then in 1915 joined
    the Royal Garrison Artillery. Fought on the Somme and in the first and
    second battles of Ypres. Joined the Home Guard in the Second World
    War. Lives in Kettering.

    Gunner Alfred Finnigan, 108 Joined the Royal Field Artillery, where he
    led a six-horse gun team. Lost all his friends in the war: his only
    injury was a horse bite. Lives in Whitland, Wales.

    Pte George Hardy, 104 Enlisted in 1918 with 6th Enniskillen Dragoons
    but did not see combat. Crossed the Channel with the army of
    occupation. Lives in a nursing home in Porthcawl, Wales. Traced in the
    past year.

    Cpl Harold Lawton, 105 Attached to the East Yorkshire regiment at
    Bethune. Was captured during German offensive of March 1918, spending
    the rest of the war as a PoW. Later dean of the arts faculty at
    Southampton University. Lives in Rutland.

    Pte Fred Lloyd, 106 Tried to join the Sussex regiment, but was too
    small. Later conscripted to the Royal Field Artillery. Lost two
    brothers in the war. Later returned to his job as a gardener. Lives in

    Pte Albert 'Smiler' Marshall, 107 The last man to draw a sword during
    a British cavalry charge. Trained with the Essex Yeomanry, where his
    sergeant nicknamed him 'Smiler'. Fought at Loos, Mons and Ypres.
    Trapped in a shell hole in no man's land, he sang the hymn: 'Nearer to
    thee, Lord.' Later a head gardener. Lives in Ashtead, Surrey.

    Pte Harry Newcombe, 104 Joined the Sussex regiment in August 1918 and
    was still training when war ended. Joined the army of occupation and
    spent a year in Germany. Joined the GWR as dining room attendant.
    Lives in Worthing. Traced in the last year.

    Pte Harry Patch, 106 Holds his own Armistice Day on 22 September to
    mark the day in 1917 when three friends were blown to pieces in front
    of him. Conscripted to the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Returned
    to job as a plumber. Lives in Wells, Somerset.

    Dispatch rider Ted Rayns, 105 Enlisted at 17 as a dispatch rider,
    taking messages from the Western Front to gun batteries. Present at
    the three battles of the Somme. Firefighter during the Second World
    War. Lives in Stafford. Traced in the past year.

    Pte George Rice, 107 Joined the Durham Light Infantry at 17 and went
    to the front, but, owing to the need for skilled tradesmen, was
    drafted into munition manufacture in Birmingham. Called up again in
    1918 in the Machinegun Corps. Later worked in car industry. Lives in
    Kings Heath, Birmingham.

    Rigger William Roberts, 104 Signed up aged 15 after his father was
    killed at the Somme in 1916, joining the Royal Flying Corps. Worked as
    an aircraft fitter and claims to have flown with TE Lawrence. Later
    became a local authority transport manager. Lives in Jacksdale, Notts.

    Chief petty officer stoker Bill Stone, 104 Enlisted on his 18th
    birthday. Saw the scuttled German fleet at Scapa Flow. Torpedoed twice
    in the Second World War and is believed to be the last man to have
    fought in both world wars. Lives in Oxford.

    Navigator Charles Watson, 104 The last survivor to be shot down in the
    First World War. His plane crashed in front of French lines and he
    helped the injured pilot to safety. Later a draughtsman. Lives in
    Bromham, Beds.

    Pte Cecil Withers, 106 Joined the 1st Battalion Royal Fusiliers and
    served in the second battle of the Somme. Wounded by shrapnel above
    his eye. Victim of British mustard gas which inadvertently went into
    British trench. Later worked for Prudential Insurance. Lives in
    Bexley, Kent.

    Pte Charles Kuentz, 107 Only survivor who fought on both Eastern and
    Western Fronts, where he was engaged at the Somme and Ypres. Carried
    the rosary of his dead mother in his backpack. Lost a son in the
    Second World War. Later a postal inspector. Lives in Colmar, Alsace.

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