Gail's Gab: remember World War I, remember Harry Patch

Type in the name Harry Patch and among the scores of websites that pay tribute to him you will find direct quotes from recorded by the BBC where he eloquently and with supreme authority lambasts war in general and the First World War in particular.

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Harry Patch was the oldest surviving soldier of the First World War in Britain and Europe.

His most damning condemnation of war came after he had reached 100 years of age.

He lived to celebrate his 111th birthday and was briefly the third oldest man in the world and one of the five oldest veterans of the First World War.

He died in July 2009. I wish we had the benefit of his words and wisdom when we studied history at school.

Some Tory politicians appear determined to turn the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of that war in July 1914 into some pompous celebration of war and glorious sacrifice.

They must not be allowed to distort the truth. A fitting tribute to the nine million lives lost would be to teach our children what Harry Patch had to say about that war not some pompous political leader who epitomises the commitment of political leaders throughout the ages willing to fight to the last drop of blood as long as it is the last drop of someone else's blood.

If the words and wisdom of Harry Patch was to be taught in our schools we would have less chance of such futile wars in the future. Consider his description of the trenches they fought in:

"The trenches were about six feet deep, about three feet wide - mud, water, a duckboard if you were lucky. You slept on the firing step, if you could, shells bursting all around you. Filthy."

All wars are terrible because people die before they should. As the classical Greek historians recorded:

"In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons."

However most wars claim a cause, however dishonourable or dishonest. Iraq was supposed to be about weapons of mass destruction but that was a barefaced lie. Afghanistan was supposed to be about Osama Bin-Laden and destroying Al Qaeda. That has proved completely counter-productive but very costly.

The Second World War was about fighting fascism and I can sign up to that as necessary and worthwhile however regretful it was.

But what was the First World War about? I well remember a scene in the great film 'Reds' about the life of the American writer and socialist John Reed.

When asked at a swanky dinner attended by well heeled members of a Rotary club to explain what the First World War was all about he stood up and said "profits" before sitting down again. Plain and simple.

Harry Patch left us with a great philosophy for future conflicts: "The politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organising nothing better than legalised mass murder".

He also pleaded the case for those cruelly shot as 'cowards':

"You were in that trench. That was your front line. You had to keep an eye on the German front line. You daren't leave. No. I suppose if you left, and some of them did, they were shot as cowards. That is another thing with shell shock - I never saw anyone with it, never experienced it - but it seemed you stood at the bottom of the ladder and you just could not move. Shellshock took all the nervous power out of you.

An officer would come down and very often shoot them as a coward. That man was no more a coward than you or I. He just could not move. That's shell shock. Towards the end of war they recognised it as an illness. The early part of the war - they didn't. If you were there you were shot. And that was it. And there's a good many men who were shot for cowardice and they are asking now … that verdict be taken away. They were not cowards."

There were no 'cowards' during the 1914-18 World War neither among those conscripted to fight or those imprisoned for conscientious objection and all such charges and records should be wiped completely.

That and promoting the words of the likes of Harry Patch across all our schools and colleges would be the right way to commemorate that most brutal and futile World War.

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