Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, two of the three surviving British veterans of the First World War and the last two who saw action in the trenches of the Western front, died within a week of one another last month. Allingham was 113 and considered by some estimates the world’s oldest man. Patch was a spry 111. The last surviving British veteran of the war is Claude Choules, 108, who served in the Royal Navy and lives today in Australia. There are apparently no surviving German or French veterans; a 108-year-old American and a 109-year-old Canadian remain.
Men who live this long see a staggering sweep of history. In Britain, they saw the British Empire fall and then eventually decline into a country that seems eager to get on with the business of extinction. Given the changes in fortune and outlook that occur even in a normal-term life, we can only imagine the shifts in perspective Allingham and Patch must have experienced.
Both men were modest and unsentimental about their war service. Patch told of watching a young soldier’s last moments at Passchendaele, his body ripped apart, calling out “mother” as he died. In response to a question about whether the lives Britain had lost in the war — nearly one million, almost double its deaths in World War II — had been worth it, he answered, “It wasn’t worth one.” Allingham spoke of terrible sights at the Battle of the Somme that would never leave him. “I saw too many things I would like to forget, but I will never forget them, I can never forget them,” he said. Their reflections sounded oddly contemporary, similar to the skeptical views citizens of advanced nations often have towards war today.
British prime minister Gordon Brown appropriately paid tribute to both men, at one point describing theirs as “the noblest of all generations.” While Brown’s sentiment may have been emotionally sincere, it was almost certainly intellectually dishonest. For many, Allingham and Patch represented a generation that marched off to war mindlessly without protest, slaughtered in a senseless conflict which soon grew beyond the reach of anyone’s ability to stop it. Their generation embodied the old, death-shrugging ways of the Empire and the broader West of a century ago. That world has not only passed into extinction; many of its core assumptions have been rejected by the generations that followed.
Brown’s “noblest generation” implies an example worthy of emulation, but no one today wants to relive the deeds of the men in the trenches, as British agony over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan makes plain. Perhaps given the change in Western attitudes toward war since 1918, words like Brown’s are as much about assuaging the survivors’ guilt of a generation that hasn’t had to fight as they are about expressing appreciation for the deceased. Placing World War I combatants on a pedestal of nobility makes them exalted, ethereal characters. It makes their sacrifice something almost otherworldly, which helpfully excuses our own failure to do anything so brave.
Like many veterans, Allingham and Patch seemed eager to be regarded in more balanced, and more honest, terms. But war makes balance of any kind difficult to attain, and honesty is no easier to come by in our time than it was in theirs. The World War I generation’s capacity to sacrifice for their fellows, to endure hardship, and to confront horror with courage and grace does, it’s true, seem far superior to our own abilities. But later generations’ questioning of the merits of various wars, refusal to tolerate human costs once largely accepted, and willingness to challenge the nation-state’s demands on individual liberty, make their own claims.
We cannot lament the toll of the Great War, and then its even-worse sequel, without retaining some gratitude that such global cataclysms have not been repeated. There are many reasons for that, but modernist skepticism, so debilitating in other respects, must surely have played a role. The words of Allingham and Patch, late in their lives, remind us that doubt, too, has its virtues.