A sad moment today, when Harry Patch, the last known survivor of the trenches in World War One, died at the age of 111. This just a week after the death of Henry Allingham, and just weeks after the death of Milvina Dean, the last survivor of the Titanic. Both the sinking of that ship and the so-called “Great War” have ceased to be living history. In a way, the deaths of Allingham and Patch in the last seven days have had a more profound resonance – whilst Milvina Dean’s passing was very sad, she was only a couple of months old when the Titanic sank and thus scarcely sentient of the events around her at the time. Allingham and Patch, on the other hand, had been participants in what was at the time the most brutal, inhuman conflict ever waged (only for another, unimaginably worse, war to happen little more than twenty years later). There is nobody else left who remembers first-hand what it was like to have fought in the trenches of Europe, to have lived through a hell that neither Breughel nor Dante could have conceived.
These deaths also serve as a reminder of the inevitability that, sooner or later, all those who witnessed or took part in a momentous event will die. It sounds crashingly obvious, yet it’s easy to forget, particularly with more recent events. In about twenty years from now, we’re likely to be in a similar position with regards those who took part in the Second World War; spool forward another twenty and it’ll be the assassination of President Kennedy, the Moon landings, Woodstock and Vietnam; another twenty and it’ll be the Falklands War and the first Gulf War. And another eighty or ninety years from now and, assuming we haven’t succeeded in wiping ourselves off the face of the planet, society may well be mourning the deaths of the last survivors and first-hand witnesses of 9/11 and the 7 July bombings. Just as, thirty years ago, there would have been those alive who were old enough to have remembered the Boer War, and fifty years before that the Crimean War. In probably only a few years’ time, even given the ageing population, there will be nobody left who was alive when Queen Victoria was still on the throne, or indeed Edward VII.
I’ll end this admittedly sombre blog post with something that my friend Ben said when I texted him the news about Harry Patch earlier today. He said he thought that Henry Allingham’s passing acted as permission for Patch to die. I like that idea, sad though it is, as though these two men, their minds forever haunted by what had happened to them nearly a century ago, felt able to let go and finally find some sort of peace. If they have gone to a “better place”, then I hope it’s somewhere free from the memories that they had to carry with them all this time.