The Funeral of Harry Patch, Oldest Warrior, who Hated War
That’s the headline in the New York Times article today (Friday, August 7, 2009, page A5) and the article moved me deeply. Like Harry Patch, my father was also a machine gunner in World War I, after being drafted out of the seminary, where he was studying to become a pastor for German speaking congregations in America. On the Western Front he fought in some of the most bloody battles and in their trenches during the night when the wounded Tommies lay dying unable to be rescued by others from their trenches, he heard them scream, “Jesus” before they died and he asked himself, how could he be killing those who loved and served and believed in Jesus the same way he did?
My father was born on the 29th of December, 1897, and he would be 111 years old, just like Harry Patch, whose funeral took place yesterday. Mr. Patch only began speaking about the horrors he endured in the war 80 years later, after he was 100 years old. My father preached to our family, his captive congregation, and relived his war experiences through many sermons. Writhing in guilt and anguish he told about a Frenchman, getting out of his trench and smoking a cigarette, looking at them one human being to another. “Should I shoot?” my father asked the officer. “Yes.” came the reply and my father shot him. Nothing he could do, because he had done it and he could not get out from under his bitter guilt.
War is the complete failure of civilization and Harry Patch said it well, when he broke his eighty years of silence: “I’ve seen devils coming up from under the ground/ I’ve seen hell upon this earth.” “War is the ‘calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings,’ too often sent into combat as ‘cannon fodder’ by politicians who should have settled their conflicts by dueling among themselves. ‘War isn’t worth one life,’ he said. ‘Too many died.’ As for the carnage in the Western Front, on both sides, he said, [nearly 900,000 lost their lives in the Battle of Ypres in Flanders] ” all who fought, whether British or German should be mourned. ‘Irrespective of the uniforms we wore,’ he told the BBC, ‘we were all victims.'”
As the last fighting Tommy, in London last November, on the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war, he pressed the message home: “Remember the Germans.” And two German soldiers in full dress uniform, part of a six man contingent, that also included soldiers from Belgium and France, were his honorary pallbearers. A German diplomat read a passage from Corinthians that spoke Christ’s “message of reconciliation” which Harry Patch, a devout Christian, stood for.
I’ll just conclude by telling how “he came across a fellow soldier in the Battle of Ypres, ripped from his shoulder to his waiste by shrapnell’ during the British assault on German lines.” He was beyond all human help and asked Harry to shoot him. But before he could pull his revolver he was dead. “And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy.”
In the words of Mr. Patch: “I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day, I’ve always remembered that cry, and that death is not the end.”
My father had that same faith and coming to America, he had to experience cruel rejection by the church he loved, worked in the Ambridge, Pittsburgh steel mills through the great depression, only to return to Germany, and as a man of faith, leading his family of ten and then eleven children (at that time) through the burning rubble of Hamburg, fleeing the Russians and the SS, and bringing his family safely through that aftemath of World War I called World War II. He did the same for his little machine gun company. The slogan they were taught was: “It is an honor and a glorious thing to die for your country.” He told his men, “It is more glorious to come back alive and to live for it.” He brought all eleven men from his little company back alive.