Thousands mourn UK's oldest warrior

Homage to  a hero: A coffin bearing the body of Harry Patch, the last soldier to fight in the trenches of Europe in World War I, is carried out of Wells Cathedral in Somerset in south-west England, on Thursday, after a funeral service. AFP

Born in June 1898, Patch died last month at the age of 111 at a nursing home in this southwestern cathedral city, where thousands of people lined the streets as his coffin passed by, draped in the red, white and blue Union flag. Soldiers from Britain, Belgium, France and Germany marched alongside the coffin in a token of Patch’s increasing desire as he aged for reconciliation both with his own memories of the trenches and with his erstwhile enemies.

“Too many died,” he said, late in life, of the estimated 900,000 Britons killed in the conflict. “War is not worth one life.”

He called war “the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,” Britain’s Press Association news agency said.

“Irrespective of the uniforms we wore,” he said, according to the BBC, “we were all victims.”

His funeral came as the British troops took record casualties alongside American, NATO and Afghan forces in Afghanistan.

Patch had been a machine-gunner, drafted into the British army in 1916 to fight in one of the bloodiest battles of the war at Passchendaele near the Belgian town of Ypres in 1917.

The cathedral bells pealed 111 times on Thursday to mark the passing of his funeral cortege from the nursing home where he died on July 25.

Patch was buried at a private ceremony after a formal service in the Cathedral Church of St Andrew and Wells, built between 1175 and 1490 as a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.

Although managed by the British ministry of defence, the service was designed by Patch’s friends and supporters to minimise military aspects. Even ceremonial weapons were barred.

Just a week before Patch died, the only other living Briton who served on the Western Front, Henry Allingham, died at the age of 113, and Patch briefly became Britain’s oldest warrior.

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