Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Last Tommy

The BBC has shown the first part of a documentary telling the personal stories of the last 27 surviving British veterans of World War I. The last Tommys are now all over 100. One was 107 when the series started filming in 2003. They were born when Queen Victoria was on the British throne. They watched the victorious British troops come home from the Boer War. One walked on the deck of the Titanic. They grew up in a world that was totally different from the one we now live in. They fought in the war that changed it.

Harry Patch never told anyone about his experiences for 80 years. He only spoke about them after moving into a retirement home and suffering flashbacks as the result of a light flickering in another room and shining like shell blasts through a small window into his room. When he spoke you could see the haunted look in his face, and at 106 years of age it is obvious that the experiences are still vivid and painful. Another veteran, Arthur Halestrap, spoke as strongly and clearly as a man half his age. He has traveled to 30 commemorations in Belgium and yet when he visited a trench being excavated in Belgium and saw the uncovered flotsum of war it was clear how close he was to tears when he made an excuse and asked to go back to the bus.

All of the veterans talk about their lost friends with sadness, pausing to reflect. One soldier Alfred Anderson is the last surviving soldier who was in the original 80,000 sent to France. He witnessed the Christmas Truce in 1914. He was wounded and sent home in 1916 while a friend who took his place died. The family of his friend blamed him for getting wounded and surviving. He said "All these years I've been trying to forget and its all been dragged up again. I thought I would die peaceful" and then came a quiet, resigned laugh, not at his friend, but at himself.

The second and final part will be on next week. It is worth watching to see these men tell their own stories. As Harry Patch said, they did it all "for 18 pence a flipping day".

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