Thousands weep for Britain’s Last TommyAugust 6th, 2009 - 8:50 pm ICT by IANS
London, Aug 6 (IANS) Led by ministers and royalty, Britain Thursday bade farewell to Harry Patch, the nation’s last surviving veteran of the First World War - a simple working class man who once refused to kill his German enemy soldier on a matter of principle.
Patch, who died July 25 at the age of 111 - he was Europe’s oldest man, was cremated at Wells Cathedral, Somerset, after funeral service attended by Britain’s veterans minister Kevan Jones, and the Duchesses of Cornwall and Gloucester, among other dignitaries.
Thousands more turned up at the Cathedral Green, where a giant screen had been put up, for a man known as the Last Tommy - the name by which British working class soldiers were known during World War I.
Soldiers from four countries - Britain, Belgium, France and Germany - were pall-bearers of the coffin, which was driven through the city of Wells to the applause of crowds of mourners.
Patch, who was conscripted in 1916, fought in the trenches in France as an assistant gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
In a television programme in 2003, Patch recalled how he spared a German soldier his life, recalling the Christian commandment, “thou shalt not kill”.
Patch first shot him in the shoulder, which made the German drop his rifle. But he carried on running towards Patch’s Lewis Gun, so he then shot him above the knee, and in the ankle.
Patch said: “I had about five seconds to make the decision. I brought him down, but I didn’t kill him.”
He was famously reluctant to talk about himself, once saying: “Any one of them could have been me. Millions of men came to fight in this war and I find it incredible that I am the only one left.”
The Ministry of Defence said the involvement of soldiers from France, Belgium and Germany symbolised Patch’s desire for reconciliation and his view that “irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims”.
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