The last survivors of the First World War

Steve Humphries has spent the last 25 years talking to people who lived through the First World War. Here, he describes his conversations with six members of an extraordinary generation

British troops in the trenches, Belgium, c1914–15. The horrors of the First World War lived long in the memories of its centenarian survivors. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)
1

Harry Patch 1898–2009

“I had lost three good mates. It was like losing part of my life”

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The author and producer Richard van Emden and I embarked on our mission to film the stories of the last survivors of the First World War – for a BBC Two series on masculinity and war – more than 20 years ago. Back then, we had no idea that one of our earliest interviewees, Harry Patch, would turn out to be the last surviving Tommy of the war.

A quiet, unassuming man whom we discovered in a residential home in Wells, Somerset, Harry had never spoken publicly or privately about his experiences before. Telling his story on camera for the first time was a very emotional experience for him. He’d served four months in the Ypres Salient in 1917 before being wounded by shellfire and evacuated back to England. It was only when he was in hospital that he was told what had happened to the rest of his Lewis gun team.

“We were five of us in the team and we lost three of us. I shall never forget the three I lost. That upsets me more than anything. Well, they were simply blown to pieces; they never found anything of them. They took the whole blast of the shell. I went down with the blast. September 22nd 1917 – that is my remembrance day, not Armistice Day. I shall never forget that.

“I had lost three good mates. My reaction was terrible; it was like losing part of my life. I’d taken an absolute liking to the men in the team – you could say almost love. I mean, those boys were with you night and day: you shared everything with them and you talked about everything. You were one of them, we belonged to each other, if you understand.”

Henry John 'Harry' Patch, the last Tommy, in 2007. In his final years, he opened up about the war for the first time. (Photo by Alamy)
Henry John ‘Harry’ Patch, the last Tommy, in 2007. In his final years, he opened up about the war for the first time. (Photo by Alamy)

In his later years, Henry John Patch was dubbed ‘the last fighting Tommy’. He became a national treasure, seen at many remembrance events. Richard wrote a bestselling biography of Harry and gave half the royalties to him. In an even greater act of generosity, Harry gave all of this money to the RNLI, who named a lifeboat after him and his wife: The Doris and Harry. At the time of his death, aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day, Harry was the third oldest man in the world.


Listen to Harry Patch speaking about his experiences in the First World War below:


2

Tommy Gay 1898–1999

“The bullets whizzed by my ears – you know, ping, ping, ping”

Tommy was 100 years old when we filmed him in 1998, a proud Cockney, still living independently in Basildon. He offered us a cup of ‘Rosy Lee’ as soon as we arrived. As a patriotic 16-year-old, Tommy had enlisted on a whim while crossing Tower Bridge on his way to work in 1914. He lied about his age and decided to join his uncle’s regiment, the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers.

A scene from 'They Shall Not Grow Old', showing how film director Peter Jackson digitally remastered footage of the First World War. (Photo courtesy of THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD/ WingNut Films/ Peter Jackson. Original black and white film © IWM)

Two years later, Tommy’s unit was lined up ready to go over the top on 1 July 1916, the first day of the battle of the Somme. He was in one of the few successful attacks on that disastrous day.

“We’d had a tot of rum that morning to help liven us up. They’d give you a good old dose, knowing what you had to do, because a man with his booze, he don’t care what he does – it makes you feel you could fight anything. I’d been made a lance corporal in the few months I’d been there. So of course, I was one of the first to get up and over the top in my regiment. ‘Come on, boys, here we go.’

“We went forward with fixed bayonets. It was brilliant sunshine. The bullets actually whizzed by my ears at one point – you know, ping, ping, ping. I thought, how marvellous that they’ve missed me. I couldn’t understand it.

“We got on the German lines because no man’s land was no distance at all. The Germans had mostly gone. In the evening, I was detailed to bury the dead. We’d been very happy with our success, but burying those men – that was a terrible thing, that was. But there you are, you had to do it.”

Soon afterwards, Tommy was taken as a prisoner of war and spent more than two years working in a German coal mine. The experience made him appreciate getting home safely to Blighty and the simple things in life. Tommy died a year after we filmed him, in 1999.


This article accompanies the BBC Four series WW1: The Last Tommies, which is due to be shown on 6, 7 and 8 November. Watch a sneak preview below:


3

Bob Weighton, born 1908

“I remember my grandma rocking back and forth on her heels with fear”

I’ve spent much of my life interviewing people in their seventies, eighties or nineties, but 110-year-old Bob – who I talked to for my new BBC series – is one of the most memorable of all. He still lives an independent life, offering tea and biscuits when I arrived.

Bob wrote and self-published his life story in his 100th year. It is full of meticulous detail – as are his memories of the home front in Hull during the First World War.

Bob was the son of a vet, one of seven children who grew up in an extended middle-class family. His most vivid memories are of the Zeppelin raids on the city between 1915 and 1918.

“My father was an air-raid warden, warning everyone to take cover, so he was often out when the Zeppelins were overhead. I remember, when the sirens went, my mother used to bring me and my brothers and sisters down from the attic where we slept and we were put underneath the dining room table. This was presumably for safety, in case a bomb dropped on us. I remember the atmosphere of fear, with my grandma rocking back and forth on her heels as she was kneeling down and moaning, ‘Oh God, Oh God, Oh God’, because we heard the bombs going off and it appeared that they were coming nearer and nearer and we would be hit.”

The worst raid was on 6/7 June 1915, when 13 explosives and 50 incendiary bombs destroyed 40 houses and killed 24. Bob witnessed scenes of devastation in the streets of Hull when he made his way to school on the morning after the raids. Yet his most lasting memory of the aftermath of the raids reveals much about the Victorian values of respectability that were instilled into children of the time.

“I remember distinctly that a bomb had fallen on a house near the main road and had taken off the front of the house. It had collapsed, and as we walked by we could see the wallpaper on the wall of the bedroom and there was a bed hanging partly over the destroyed floor as if somebody had only just escaped with their lives. But I remember what shocked me was the exposure of somebody’s bedroom to the public gaze – I thought that was most shocking.”

Bob, pictured this year, remembers the terror during the Zeppelin raids on Hull. (Photo by Testimony Films)
Bob, pictured this year, remembers the terror during the Zeppelin raids on Hull. (Photo by Testimony Films)
4

Marjorie Grigsby c1898–1996

“They amputated a leg, and I had to take the wretched thing away”

Marjorie was the first nurse we filmed, in the mid-90s. We interviewed her in a nursing home, where we were surprised to find her smoking in her room. She was an indomitable character from a well-to-do background, who had smoked since she was a teenager and had no intention of giving up now. She had started smoking when she became one of the ‘Roses of No Man’s Land’: young, unpaid volunteer nurses who earned a reputation for their care and compassion for injured and dying soldiers.

Like many others, Marjorie was so keen to serve that she lied about her age:

“I was interviewed over a double desk and he said: ‘How old are you?’ so I said: ‘20, sir,’ and he said: ‘How old?’ I can see him now looking over the top with his glasses, and I said: ‘20, sir.’ I saw him write down: ‘Age 20, apparent age 16,’ and I said: ‘I know you’ve written it down, sir, in black and white – you can’t alter it – but it isn’t 16, it’s 17.’ And he grinned and left it as it was and passed me.

“When I got to the front, you were called the dirty nurse and you had to do all the mucky things. They’d just amputated a leg and they put it in a bucket and I had to take the wretched thing away down to the incinerator. I didn’t like it – you had no idea what a leg weighs when amputated. I had to lug it with the foot sticking up all the way down to the incinerator. I didn’t enjoy that at all.

“The girls of my age were all inexperienced girls, but of course in war you do different things from what you do in other times. You just carry on and do your duty.” 

At the end of the interview, Marjorie lit up again. Sadly, she died a year later. It was an honour to have recorded her story.

British former field marshal Douglas Haig, inspects poppies before Armistice Day, October 1922. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

5

Florence Billington 1898–1998

“My letters were found on his body. I couldn’t imagine him not being there”

Florence was still bursting with energy when I filmed her, a few months before she died. She was just 16 when she met and fell in love with Ted Felton. When war broke out, he joined the King’s (Liverpool Regiment). He was killed in the second battle of Ypres in early 1915. Florence had no picture of him, but her memory of the boy she had hoped to marry remained vivid in her mind more than 80 years on.

“We were desperately in love with each other. I was thinking of him day and night and he was of me. We made the promise that, as soon as the war was over, we’d get engaged. But he was quite convinced he was going to be killed. I didn’t know what to say – I knew nothing about war but all I could do was tell him to look on the bright side, that there were better days in store when it was all over.

“That was a promise he went away with in his heart – that it wouldn’t be for long. I used to write letters to him and tell him I missed him, missed him an awful lot and wished and wished he was a bit nearer so I could see more of him. I always told him that I wouldn’t look at anybody else while he was away and that I’d wait for him – I’d wait for him to eternity. I said just think of the future, the future and us, and that’s what I thought of. I was living for the future and my future with him.

“I was working at the Palace Hotel Buxton [in Derbyshire] as a little housemaid, and one of the porters came up with this letter from the War Office. When I saw it, my heart sank a little bit. I thought it must be something very important. When I opened it, it was to say that they regretted to tell me Ted had been killed. The letters from me were found on his body. I couldn’t really imagine him not being there. I thought maybe they’d find out they’d made a mistake and perhaps he might turn up one day. I couldn’t imagine life without him.”

I’m really pleased that, 100 years on, Florence’s story has been one of the inspirations for the Royal Ballet’s First World War centenary production of The Unknown Soldier, to be performed at the Royal Opera House in London on 20–29 November.

6

Norman Collins 1897–1998

“It still has an effect on me now. You never forget it”

Norman gave one of the most vivid and moving accounts of the war of anyone we filmed. He had so many extraordinary stories to tell of his courage and humanity on the battlefield that we filmed him more than once. As a 19-year-old, just commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders, he led a platoon of men into the horror of the battle of the Somme. He remained haunted by the sights he saw until he died in 1998 at the age of 100.

The memory that haunted Norman the most was when he was designated to be a burial officer after the attack at Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916. “I was told to collect the newly killed and I took stretcher-bearers, quite a number of whom were related to the ones who were dead – brothers, cousins – and of course they were very, very upset. As an officer, the best way of comforting the living would be to give them a stroke on the head or a pat on the back or some gesture like that: without words, comfort them without words.

“Afterwards I was told to go back into what had been no man’s land and bury the old dead of the Newfoundland Regiment, killed on 1 July. The flesh had gone mainly from the face but the hair had still grown, the beard too to some extent. The rats were running out of their chests. The rats were getting out of the rain, because the cloth over the rib cage made quite a nice nest, and when you touched a body, the rats just poured out the front. For a young fellow like myself – 19 – all I had to look forward to was a similar fate. It still has an effect on me now. You never forget it.”

Steve Humphries is an award-winning film-maker specialising in social history documentaries. WW1: The Last Tommies, a series produced by Steve Humphries, is due to be shown on BBC Four on 6, 7 and 8 November.

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This article was first published in the December 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine