Henry and Harry’s experiences belong as much to the present as the past

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In an age when we are all supposed to be shallow consumer junkies, fixated on the future and indifferent to the past, the deaths of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch were a salutary reminder of our national respect for history. Not even the most cynical observer could deny that the funerals in Brighton and Wells, with their muffled bells, military pallbearers and silent crowds, were intensely moving events.

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And although they were above all deeply personal occasions, commemorating the lives of men who, at 113 and 111 respectively, had experienced far more of the human condition than most of us can ever expect to see, they raised profound questions about our relationship not just with the First World War, but with the past itself.

In the press, a common response to the deaths of the last survivor of the battle of Jutland and the last fighting Tommy was to suggest that the final thread binding us to that terrible conflict had finally snapped. It is true that nobody will ever again listen to Harry Patch’s memories of the battle of Passchendaele. On the other hand, we have his book to remind us as well as recordings of his television interviews, and a historian could spend years sifting through the memoirs, interviews and accounts from other veterans. And of course the legacy of the First World War is still all around us, not just in dusty family photograph albums or the recollections of elderly relatives who lost parents and grandparents, but in war memorials the length and breadth of the nation, with their injunctions never to forget.

In a thoughtful article on the passing of Harry Patch, the former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion observed that whenever Patch was asked about the war, he tended to tell the same handful of anecdotes, tailored to suit his passionate anti-war argument (one that carried extraordinary force coming from a man who had literally gone over the top). But as any historian who has ever conducted oral history interviews knows, there is nothing unusual about that. For despite its supposed authenticity, the individual memory is one of the least reliable historical sources of all. We remember what we want to remember; we recall what we think happened, rather than what did happen. Over time, our complicated, jagged memories become neat anecdotes; we leave some people out, we put others in; we get this date mixed up with that one; and as the stories get gradually better, they lose the messiness that once made them real.

It is surely very unlikely that the passing of Henry Allingham and Harry Patch will, as some commentators rather rashly claimed, make a big difference to our historical understanding of the First World War. After all, historians have been arguing over its causes and consequences for so long that the debates are already well-established, while anyone looking for stories to lend colour, immediacy and human detail need only call at the Imperial War Museum, whose 10,000 hours of videotape, 56,000 hours of sound recordings and 150,000 collections of letters, diaries and memoirs, means that we are in no danger of forgetting the terrible slaughter of the trenches.

Even so, despite all the books and the video footage, it is still hard to resist the feeling that some kind of thread has been broken. Perhaps it is merely the fact that now there is nobody left in Britain for whom the First World War is not history but memory; that there is nobody left for whom it is not merely the stuff of A-level essays and historical re-enactments, but red-raw recollection. We are often too quick to draw a thick black line between past and present, to think of history as something that happens to other people, the “fools in old-style hats and coats” as Philip Larkin famously put it. They become characters in a dusty costume drama; we no longer see them as fully human, as people like ourselves.

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Yet as Harry Patch used to remind us, the lessons of the First World War are for all time. “Never again,” wrote Andrew Motion at the end of his tribute to the last Tommy. But in the last few years, Africa’s Great War in the Congo has claimed well over five million lives, often unreported by the western press. The best tribute we could pay Henry Allingham and Harry Patch would be to recognise that their experiences belong as much to the present as they do to the history books.