I objected, in the heat of the summer, to a blogger who made fun of Harry Patch’s name. Henry John Patch, for those of you who don’t know, was one of the last surviving soldiers from World War I, and he died on July 25th. He was 111. He was our last link to trench warfare and trench foot. He was the last link to what we used to call Shell Shock, and now we call hell. He was the link to mustard gas and the Western Front.
I was excoriated by other commentors on the blog. I was called a bitch, and told I had no sense of humour. One of them turned up here and threatened to slap me. And I was bewildered and I am still. All of this for standing up and suggesting honour and respect. It’s not that the name isn’t strange (although, it’s actually not in the UK), it’s that when we reduce someone to their name, when we poke fun, we reduce and then we forget. Forgetting is dangerous. Forgetting is frantic years between WWI and WWII, dancing the Charleston while the world fell apart around us. Forgetting is not always a conscious choice, it is the mark of carelessness, a refusal to pause, a refusal to take seriously. Forgetting begins with poking fun.
Harry Patch came home from the trenches, married his sweetheart, and became a plumber. He had 2 sons, and when the next war came, he was too old to go off and fight. Death and war have always been a young man’s game.
I took a course in World War II history, and if you know anything about that war, you know that you start with the war to end all wars. You start with the terms of the armistice, signed in a railway car in France, at 5:30 in the morning, before the sun came up on November 11, 1918. Like all wars, World War II was rooted in history, rooted firmly in our mistakes, in not learning the lesson, in forgetting.
I have always known peace. I have never heard air raid sirens and seen ration books and felt fear of a loved one dying far from home. And in that place of solid peace, the history prof played us the sound of an air raid in London. From BBC footage and recordings of Stuka’s diving, the sounds of war. The scream of a doodle bug falling, the terrible silence and the blast. More screams. Air raid sirens, fire sirens, shouts and wails. Smashing buildings, smashing crockery, smashing lives.
I was changed that day.
It seems to me that there is not much I can do, to stop the calls that lead us off to war. I cannot rid the world of evil, and I cannot feed and clothe the broken. I cannot sign treaties, and I cannot ensure a voice for everyone. I cannot even understand what it is to live in war, all the books I read, the pictures I see leave me confused, unable to understand. I have stood in London, I have seen the damage still. I have heard the words of those who lived then. And still I know not. All that is left to me is to remember. To hold corporate memory.
Speak softly of this world’s Harry Patches. Speak clearly and with care.