This has been a year of war, not peace, when a president elected to end conflicts instead expanded the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. So as it closes we would do well to recall an old warrior who came to see the futility of fighting. British veteran Harry Patch was the last survivor of World War I’s brutal trench warfare.
Patch, who died in July at age 111, fought for a year with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry before returning home to work as a plumber, raise a family and disappear into relative obscurity.
A modest man who had refused to speak of his experience in the trenches until it was pointed out that he was among the last survivors of “the war to end all wars,” the aging vet finally told his tale to the BBC. What he described was the “calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings” on the Western Front. “Too many died,” declared Patch. “War isn’t worth one life.”
In an autobiography published two years before his death, “The Last Fighting Tommy,” Patch bemoaned: “(The) politicians who took us to war should have been given the guns and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalized mass murder.”
The veteran’s passing in July brought many tributes. Yet it would seem that the finest memorial to Patch and others who recognized the futility of the First World War in particular, and of wars in general, was erected when the veteran still lived.
On Nov. 11, 2008 – the 90th anniversary of that 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month when World War I ended – there was dedicated in Frélinghien, France, a memorial to the most remarkable event not merely of that particular conflict but perhaps of all conflicts.
The memorial recalls a soccer game played on Christmas Day 1914 between men from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and the 134th Saxon Infantry Regiment. The Saxons won, 2-1.
Then the two teams partook of plum pudding proffered by the Welshmen and a barrel of beer rolled onto the field by the Saxons. They sang a few carols and hung candles from a bush in the rough fashion of a Christmas tree.
Those who know their military history will recognize that what was remarkable about the game was that it involved soldiers in the service of the British king and German kaiser who, only hours before, had been battling one another – and who, in short order, would be battling once again.