How long ago is the Victorian era? In human terms, that is, not just clock time? This is being written in early June, 2008, the day after Henry Allingham was given a birthday party by the RAF in a hotel in Lincolnshire once frequented by the Dam Busters Squadron during the Second World War. It was Mr Allingham's 112th birthday. He was born in south London in 1896 and served in the Great War as an aero-mechanic. At first he was in the Royal Naval Air Service when the Navy were flying primitive craft off makeshift carriers on anti-submarine patrols over the North Sea. Part of his job was hoisting seaplanes back on board when they returned and landed on the water. He was in HMS Kingfisher> at the Battle of Jutland. Later he served in France when the RNAS was merged with the Royal Flying Corps to become the Royal Air Force. He is the oldest surviving member of the RAF, hence the birthday party — along with a fly-past of vintage and modern warplanes.

In the Second World War, one of his daughters, Jean, was a GI bride who went to live in Michigan with her husband, a tail gunner in the USAAF. Henry Allingham's great-great-great-grand son, Erik, a little two-year old American boy, was at his 112th birthday party in Lincolnshire.

All three of the oldest men in England who are still alive in 2008 were born in Queen Victoria's reign and all are Great War veterans. Bill Stone was born in Devon in 1900. He joined the Royal Navy as a stoker in 1918 and stayed until 1945, having served in both World Wars. He was in the minesweeper Salamander when the Army was evacuated from Dunkirk (all three hundred thousand men) and was later twice torpedoed. After the war he became a barber and tobacconist, a rare combination.

What is the secret of a long life? they've been asked. "Clean living," says Bill Stone, "be contented, and trust the Lord." "Cigarettes, whisky, and wild women," says Henry Allingham. You pays your money, as they used to say, and you takes your choice.

Harry Patch was born in June, 1898, in Somerset and was called up in 1916 in time for the 3rd Battle of Ypres or Passchendaele (or Wipers and Passiondale as they were known in the ranks.) He was with a machine gun section in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. One night as the battalion was leaving the line they were hit by a German shell. Only two of the six man gun crew survived. "I can remember the shell bursting," he recalled nearly ninety years later, "I saw the flash. I must have passed out. The next thing I could remember was the dressing station. A wound in my groin. The nurse painted something around it to stop the lice getting at it. I was given a good hot bath. The lice came off you could pick them off with a shovel, the bloody things."

The wound was a Blighty one, meaning it was serious enough for him to be shipped back to England to recover. Before the war he'd been a plumber, and after it became one again; during the Second World War he looked after the sanitation in an American Army camp in the West Country. He met his first wife while home on sick leave after Passiondale. In fact he bumped into her and knocked her over on the steps of a cinema. His second wife he married when he was eighty-one.

I'd like to mention three other Victorians who are still also part of a living tradition centred on the Great War. The first is Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) whose poem, "For The Fallen," seems particularly poignant given the great age of these three old survivors, commemorating as it does the men who never came home. The fourth stanza in particular is always quoted every November on Remembrance Sunday.

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They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

The second is John MacCrae (1872-1918) and his poem "In Flanders Fields." In it the dead are speaking to the living, appealing to them not to surrender.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch: be yours to hold up high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep
Though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Finally, there is Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) who designed the Whitehall Cenotaph (in under six hours it's some times said) as a memorial to the fallen of the Great War, but now also to the dead of all succeeding conflicts. On the nearest Sunday to Armistice Day (11th November — the day in 1918 when the fighting stopped) a ceremony led by the Queen is held here. She lays a wreath of poppies on its steps. There is a two minutes silence, the Last Post is sounded by a solitary bugler, and there's a parade by veterans of all the wars — Harry Patch, Henry Allingham, and Bill Stone among them, at least until recently.

But the last word should go to the 110-year-old Victorian, Harry Patch, a one time private soldier in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. "I fell in a trench," he told a reporter. "There was a fella there. He must have been about our age. He was ripped shoulder to waist with shrapnel. I held his hand for the last sixty seconds of his life. He only said one word: "Mother". I didn't see her, but she was there. No doubt about it. He passed from this life into the next, and it felt as if I was in God's presence."

June 2008

The Persistence of the Victorians: Things Remembered and Things Forgot

Reference

"Britain's oldest war veterans meet Service Chiefs at the Ministry of Defence." www.mod.uk 11 July 2007.

"I've never got over it." Daily Telegraph (31 July 2007): 22.

"The old soldier who refuses to fade away." Daily Telegraph (7 June 2008): 22.

"I feel on the Crest of a Wave." The Times (6 June 2008). www.timesonline.co.uk

Patch, Harry. The Last Fighting Tommy. Bloomsbury, London, 2007. [Not seen]


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Last modified 19 June 2008