[Paleopsych] Guardian: Last veterans to tell their war stories
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Thu Jan 20 21:32:41 UTC 2005
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
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,'
'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
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
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
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
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
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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