The Five Acts of Harry Patch

Sadly, Harry Patch – after Henry Allingham who died earlier this month,  Britain’s last surviving soldier of the First World War – died yesterday, aged 111. On Broadcasting House today Jay Winter, the cultural historian of the 1WW gave a lengthy talk on the ‘Lost Generation’ and the impact of the 1WW on British culture.  This was how he began:

The generation of the Great War, and the men who died on active service in it,  are  the men we call the ‘Lost Generation’. They didn’t have the luxury of dying one at a time.   On 1 July 1916, 20 thousand men died, in the morning, most of them in the first half an hour of the attack on theSomme.  Others died month after month in their thousands, and their loss changed British society in ways which are still evident today.  Remembering the Lost Generation is one way of knowing and feeling what it means to be British.

And it is that particular meaning of the Lost Generation which is raised by the passing of the last serving British Soldier of the First World War.  He would have known clearly that being British means wearing a red poppy on your lapel on Armistice day.  It means hearing in schools, churches, societies  the cadences of the War Poet.    It means visiting, in many parts of the world, the long lines of white headstones in Commonwealth War cemeteries, each one resembling a village cemetery somewhere in the English countryside.  Every one of those acts of commemoration  means remembering the Great War.

Now nearly 100 years later, we need to see that coming out of the war were codes of grief that are still alive today.  No one can understand British cultural forms without attending to this practice, this evocation of a ‘Lost Generation’, the absence of which defines in one significant way, what Britain was and what she has become since 1914 opened the terrible century, the 20th century, the era of total war.

The Guardian obituary tells how Patch, called up in October 1916 was, by June 1917, a lance corporal in France with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. Two weeks after the third battle of Ypres, Passchendaele, had begun on 31 July 1917, Patch duly went over the top. “Others were just blown to pieces,” he would write in the 21st century, “it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only 19 years old. I felt sick.” Impassioned yet cool, he saw weeks of horror; a dying comrade called, “shoot me” but immediately died with the word, “mother”. Haunted by that, and shielded by a dead German, Patch, a crack shot, fired mercifully at a German’s shoulder, but the man stumbled on, bayonet ready; an easy kill, but still Patch “shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down. He called out something in German, I don’t suppose it was complimentary”.

“War is organised murder, and nothing else.”

It wasn’t worth it. No war is worth it. No war is worth the loss of a couple of lives let alone thousands. T’isn’t worth it…the First World War, if you boil it down, what was it? Nothing but a family row. That’s what caused it.

“All those young lives lost in a war which ended across a table. Where’s the sense in that?”

I remember last November, in Meeting Harry, Andrew Motion was invited by the BBC to visit the 110-year-old survivor of the trenches. The poet, whose first work had been about the Great War, felt so transported across time that he became oblivious to the cameras’ presence and recalled that Patch’s hands felt like twigs and his voice “was very low, almost worn out … there were lengthy pauses … gradually I realised they were to let him collect himself”.

Motion’s poem, The Five Acts of Harry Patch, depends, however, upon a knowledge of the veteran’s life; without that, many of the references do not have the dramatic effect of Patch’s own account. It opens, though, with an evocation of an Edwardian summer and, inevitably, closes in the centenarian’s nursing home, with his terror, memory flooded with sniper fire, when staff open the linen cupboard opposite his room: “… all it takes / is someone switching on the light – there is that flash, / or was until you said, and the staff blacked the window.”

The Five Acts of Harry Patch by Andrew Motion

I.
A curve is a straight line caught bending
and this one runs under the kitchen window
where the bright eyes of your mum and dad
might flash any minute and find you down
on all fours, stomach hard to the ground,
slinking along a furrow between the potatoes
and dead set on a prospect of rich pickings,
the good apple trees and plum trees and pears,
anything sweet and juicy you might now be
able to nibble around the back and leave
hanging as though nothing were amiss,
if only it were possible to stand upright
in so much clear light and with those eyes
beady in the window and not catch a packet.

II.
Patch, Harry Patch, that’s a good name,
Shakespearean, it might be one of Hal’s men
at Agincourt or not far off, although in fact
it starts life and belongs in Combe Down
with your dad’s trade in the canary limestone
which turns to grey and hardens when it meets
the light, perfect for Regency Bath and you too
since no one these days thinks about the danger
of playing in quarries when the workmen go
not even of prodding and pelting with stones
the wasps’ nests perched on rough ledges
or dropped from the ceiling on curious stalks
although god knows it means having to shift
tout suite and still get stung on arms and faces.

III.
First the hard facts of not wanting to fight,
and the kindness of deciding to shoot men
in the legs but no higher unless needs must,
and the liking among comrades which is truly
deep and wide as love without that particular name,
then Pilckem Ridge and Langemarck and across
the Steenbeek since none of the above can change
what comes next, which is a lad from A Company
shrapnel has ripped open from shoulder to waist
who tells you “Shoot me”, but is good as dead
already, and whose final word is “Mother”,
which you hear because you kneel to hold
one finger of his hand, and then remember orders
to keep pressing on, support the infantry ahead.

IV.
After the big crowd to unveil the memorial
and no puff left in the lungs to sing O valiant hearts
or say aloud the names of friends and one cousin,
the butcher and chimney sweep, a farmer, a carpenter,
work comes up the Wills Tower in Bristol and there
thunderstorms are a danger, so bad that lightning
one day hammers Great George and knocks down
the foreman who can’t use his hand three weeks
later as you recall, along with the way that strike
burned all trace of oxygen from the air, it must have,
given the definite stink of sulphur and a second
or two later the gusty flap of a breeze returning
along with rooftops below, and moss, and rain
fading over the green Mendip Hills and blue Severn.

V.
You grow a moustache, check the mirror, notice
you’re forty years old, then next day shave it off,
check the mirror again – and see you’re seventy,
but life is like that now, suddenly and gradually
everyone you know dies and still comes to visit
or you head back to them, it’s not clear which
only where it happens: a safe bedroom upstairs
by the look of things, although when you sit late
whispering with the other boys in the Lewis team,
smoking your pipe upside-down to hide the fire,
and the nurses on night duty bring folded sheets
to store in the linen cupboard opposite, all it takes
is someone switching on the light – there is that flash,
or was until you said, and the staff blacked the window.

In an article in the Telegraph, Andrew Motion explained how he came to write the poem following an invitation from the BBC:

Partly because I’ve had a life-long fascination with the history and literature of the First World War, partly because I wanted to meet Harry and partly because I liked the challenge of making a programme about something TV rarely tackles (the inwardness of writing), I agreed at once. But when the time came for my first visit to Harry, on Jan 10, I felt apprehensive as well as eager.

Would Harry be fed up with talking about himself? (His autobiography, The Last Fighting Tommy, co-written with Richard van Emden, had suggested as much.) Would he be well enough? (He’s 109, for goodness sake.) Would he be embarrassed to be the pored-over subject for a poem? (I found myself prickling when I put myself in his shoes.)

The moment I saw Harry – a sparrow of a man, wheelchair bound but with an astonishingly alert face and self-composed manner, I knew the answer to all these questions was “yes”.

But I also knew he would pay me the courtesy of co-operating with the film – partly because he is one of nature’s gentlemen, and partly because he’s justifiably proud of his celebrity and his story. Proud, but bashful. Most people who become eminent do so as the result of a definite effort of some kind; Harry has achieved his fame by accident – he never meant to be the last survivor of the trenches.

This emphasises an instinctive modesty in him, and means that his involvement with his own history has remained fresh in spite of many repetitions. It also means he’s able to convey a sense of immediacy to others. As I realised this, I knew it would be possible to write about him.

But write what? Harry has been alive for more than 1,300 months, of which four were spent in Flanders: he was a Lewis gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry; he fought at Passchendaele; he was wounded by a shell which killed three of his five-man team; he was invalided back to England; by the time he’d recovered, the war was over.

Before I spoke to Harry I’d decided this period should be the centre of the poem – it was the most dramatic, and the reason why I’d been connected with him.

But the longer we talked, the more interested I became in other aspects of his life – his beautifully remembered childhood in Combe Down near Bath, where his father worked as a mason in the early years of the 20th century; his career as a plumber after the war; his contribution to the building of the Wills Tower in Bristol; his time as a fireman during the Second World War; his immensely long old age, and the changes it witnessed.

All these, I thought, needed their fair share of attention. Whatever I wrote shouldn’t just be a war poem. It should be a whole-life poem. And that’s what I tried to write – in a form (unrhymed sonnets, each of a single sentence) which would be circuitously slowed-down, like the mechanics of ancient memory, but also headlong as if driven by compulsions.

But the longer I worked on the poem, the more deeply I realised that everything Harry had told me, and everything in his strikingly good book, was shadowed by the war – even when the subject had nothing to do with fighting.

Harry’s early memories of nibbling the apples and pears from his father’s fruit trees, which he reached by crawling along the potato furrows, are couched in language that anticipates his time in Flanders. His post-war account of a lightning strike on the Wills Tower echoes the shell-blast that killed his friends. His more recent night-time memory flashes, triggered by lights in his nursing home, show the war continuing in his head 90 years after the Armistice.

I decided there was nothing for it but to allow such parallels to give the poem its structure, just as they have given Harry’s life its particular significance and pathos. It’s impossible to gauge the extent to which this life-shape has been accentuated by Harry’s emergence as the sole survivor, and the persistent questioning by people such as myself. The likely answer is: greatly…

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3 thoughts on “The Five Acts of Harry Patch

  1. Thank you so much, I have read the transcript once but there is too much to take in after one reading so will return to it later. This year has been particularly poignant, perhaps because of Harry Patch’s passing, perhaps because of the terribly problems of the world? How tragic that despite everything that has passed we continue to have wars.

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