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Harry Patch

(1898-2009) – Last soldier

Harry Patch was the last surviving British soldier of the First World War. Hailing from Somerset, he was seconded to the 7th Battalion of the DCLI as a Lewis gunner. He visited Bodmin on numerous occasions in later life and often talked about the futility of war.

Credit: Cornwall Regimental Museum, Bodmin

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The Devon and Cornwall Light Infantry (DCLI) Regiment, like most regiments in the First World War, had to draw much of its fighting force from outside its recruitment area.  So, for example, only 16 of the first 100 DCLI soldiers killed in the First World War actually came from Devon and Cornwall.

Harry Patch was born at Coombe Down near Bath on 17th June 1898.  His father was a Master Stonemason, a trade which required great skill and experience, and was consequently well paid.  They lived in a semi-detached house where there was room for his parents, their three sons and a staff of butler, cook and housemaid.

Harry left school at the age of fourteen and was apprenticed to a local plumber.  He didn’t complete his five year apprenticeship as, in October 1916, he received his order to report to the Somerset Light Infantry Depot in Taunton.

After being given a medical examination he was documented, issued with a basic kit and dispatched to a training unit at Exmouth.  There he was taught basic drill for a couple of months before being moved.  After a very comprehensive six month course covering all aspects of infantry training, Harry crossed to France in June 1917.  All this belies the often repeated myth that untrained soldiers were thrown into the front line.  After about a fortnight of final training at the Base Depot, Boulogne, he was ready to take his place at the front.  Previously he had qualified as a Lewis gunner and it so happened that the 7th Battalion DCLI were urgently in need of men, including these specialists.  The Lewis gun team which he joined considered themselves an élite, and the four men who operated this lethal weapon worked closely together.  Surprisingly, although they had a gun that could provide greater firepower then all the riflemen put together, they had a strong aversion to killing, their ethos being that, if possible, they should bring the enemy down by shooting at his legs.

On 22nd September 1917, the battalion was coming out of the line after the battle of the Menin Road.  The Germans were shelling the rear areas, and one of these shells burst among the Lewis gun team as they made their way to the rear.  Harry was severely wounded in the stomach; the other three members of his team were killed.

Harry Patch (as he was always known) visited the Keep at Bodmin on numerous occasions after the war.  Although he was the last army survivor of the conflict, Claude Choules, who died in 2011 age 110, was actually the last British survivor.  Claude had served in the Royal Navy as a boy sailor.

Key words: trenches

Credit: Cornwall's Regimental Museum, Bodmin