Farewell to an old soldier

by
12 August 2009

Last week in Wells Cathedral, the Dean, John Clarke, preached at the funeral of Harry Patch, aged 111, the last surviving veteran of the First World War

Last Post: servicemen carry Harry Patch’s coffin outside Wells Cathedral PA

Last Post: servicemen carry Harry Patch’s coffin outside Wells Cathedral PA

WE ARE HERE to celebrate Henry John Patch — Harry, Somerset man, husband, father, and grandfather, friend, plumber, last veteran of the trenches, ambassador for peace and reconciliation.

In the course of this funeral ser­vice, we give thanks to God for his long life, for his courage, his sense of humour, his humanity, and his truth­fulness.

We remember the terrible cost of war, and the consequences of human pride and waywardness. We stand be­side those who mourn his passing, and we commend him into the hands of God, who is our beginning and our end.

We mark the end of an era. The last voice with direct experience of combat in the trenches has fallen silent. The awful slaughter of Passchen­daele, of Langemarck, of Pilckem Ridge, will now be told second-hand, by recorded interviews, in film, or as pages in a history book.

The Great War shaped the destiny of Western Europe in the 20th century. The terrible cost included the death of a generation of young men, and the devastation of large parts of North-Eastern France and Belgium. The peace settlement at Ver­sailles and its aftermath sowed the seeds for future global conflict 20 years later.

But the story of the trenches is best told as the story of individual men, of diaries kept, of letters written home, of moments of laughter and horror recalled and shared.

Harry has made his own powerful contribution in his memoir The Last Fighting Tommy, and by taking part in television documentaries. The ones who survived into this century be­came the final spokesmen for those who died. Harry kept alive the mem­ory of his comrades in the Lewis-gun team blown up on 22 September 1917.

St Paul says that, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. He is speaking of the costly love shown by Jesus on the cross; the love that reaches out beyond friendship groups, tribes, and nations to offer forgiveness, to embrace those who have once been our enemies. St Paul describes this peace as a new creation. He writes: “Everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”

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Harry in his last years proclaimed this new creation in a special way, as he became a national symbol of re­con­ciliation. Returning to the battle­fields, stretching out the hand of friend­ship to Charles Kuentz, a German soldier who had also served in the trenches, talking of the waste of war, urging that disputes be settled by discussion and compromise, his words and deeds had an authenticity born of bitter experience.

His body became frailer, but his spirit continued to speak of the possibility that human beings might live together in peace.

But Harry was no saint to be fixed or forgotten in a stained-glass win­dow. He was an ordinary man who loved and was loved, a boy who played in the quarries under Combe Down, a man who worked as a plumber, was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service in Bath during the Second World War, a man who tended his vegetable plot, enjoyed his friends, reared pigs and chickens; a man who had known hurt and estrangement in his family, who grieved the deaths of Ada and Jean and Betty and Doris and his sons Den­nis and Roy. The time in the trenches marked all his years, but, in fact, it was only a few months of a very long life.

It was this ordinariness that made him so attractive, and that we celeb­rate today. He relished the humorous, had a sense of the mischievous, and yet maintained an integrity that knew what was right and what was wrong. It is all of Harry, the child and the man, the public and the private, the generous and the demanding, the Harry who, as his body weakened, needed the care of the staff of Fletcher House and of his friends, that we commend into the care of God.

St Paul urges the Corinthians: “Be reconciled to God.” As God reaches out to a confused and divided hu­man­ity, so we in turn are to become agents of his reconciliation. In every moment of life, in our attitudes to others, in the decisions we take, we can seek to repair and heal the world, or we can contribute to its destruc­tion.

Harry believed that the world could be repaired — his hope re­mains a poignant and urgent message for our times, as British servicemen once again face death and injury in foreign fields.

As we look back over a long and courageous life, we give thanks for Harry, we mourn the passing of a generation of soldiers, we pray for all who died in the wars of the 20th century. And yet, in spite of the slaughter of the battlefields, because of Harry and those of many nations who speak out for peace, we dare to trust that people and social structures can be reformed and renewed.

His example calls each of us to continue to strive for a new creation — a creation in which the peace and forgiveness that we glimpse in Christ will become present in human lives, and when enmities, old and new, will be overcome.

May Harry, servant of this country, servant of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.

This is an edited version of the sermon given by the Very Revd John Clarke on 6 August.

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