WELLS, England (AP) — Church, state and hundreds of warriors of other battles were according last honors Thursday to Harry Patch, Britain's last combat veteran of World War I.
Hundreds of people lined the main street to watch Patch's coffin, shrouded in a Union flag, roll silently down the narrow road leading to the town cathedral. As the hearse passed, townspeople fell in behind, walking in silent tribute.
The coffin carrying Harry Patch's coffin drives to Wells Cathedral followed by crowds of mourners on August 6, 2009 in Wells, England.
Men dressed as World War I soldiers stand outside Wells Cathedral during the funeral of Harry Patch on August 6, 2009 in Wells, England. Harry Patch was born on June 17, 1898 and lived to become Europe’s oldest man. (Getty)
Harry was conscripted in October 1916 and joined the 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry. Like many of his generation Harry preferred not to speak of his experiences in the trenches, but after his 100th birthday he gradually opened up and became a spokesman for his generation. Harry continued to be haunted by the death of his three friends who were killed on Pilkem Ridge, Belgium on September 22, 1917 when he was injured and treated without anaesthetic on the battlefield. Harry outlived his sons and his wife. (Getty)
Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (R) attends the funeral of World War I veteran Harry Patch on August 6, 2009 in Wells, England. (Getty)
First World War veterans (L-R) 112 year old Henry Allingham, 110 year old Harry Patch and 108 year old Bill Stone, gather at the start of the Armistice day commemorations on November 11, 2008 in London, England. (Getty)
This Oct. 27, 2007 photo shows Harry Patch, then aged 109, from Wells, England, as a guest of honor during commemorations in Weston-super-Mare, England to launch the local poppy appeal. Harry Patch, the last British veteran of World War I, has died at 111. The only other surviving British veteran of the war, former airman Henry Allingham, died a week ago at age 113. (AP)
Patch, who died June 25 at age 111, only began talking about his experience of trench warfare in his last years. He had returned, wounded, from the Western Front and quietly lived out his life as a plumber.
He outlived two wives, and both of his sons.
Gen. Richard Dannatt, the top commander of British forces, attended the service at Wells Cathedral, and an honor guard was drawn from The Rifles regiment, successor to Patch's unit. Soldiers from France, Germany and Belgium were also escorting the coffin, in tribute to Patch's respect for all the soldiers in the war.
On the eve of Patch's funeral, the rock group Radiohead released a song, "Last Tommy," in tribute to Patch. The group said profits from downloads would go to the British Legion, the national veterans' organization.
"I am the only one that got through, the others died where ever they fell," the song begins.
Patch boasted that he hadn't killed anyone in combat, but he did shoot at the legs of a German soldier who had charged with a bayonet.
"He called out something to me in German, I don't suppose it was complimentary, but for him the war was over," he said.
"I've often wondered whether he realized that I gave him his life. He was no more than 15 yards away when I shot him. I couldn't miss, not with a Webley service revolver, not at that range."
At least 8.5 million soldiers are reckoned to have died in the war.
"Too many died," Patch had said. "War isn't worth one life."
An hour before the service, people lined up along the mile-long (two kilometer-long) route from the nursing home to the cathedral, and several hundred gathered under leaden skies on the green outside the cathedral. Among the crowd were many elderly men with military medals on their chests, and one man in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion.
Joe Davis, 81, said his father, like Patch, would never talk abut his experiences in World War I. He said he learned details of his father's war service only after he died.
"It's amazing," he said. "Was it so horrible they couldn't talk about it?"
Mike Wool, on duty as a parade marshal outside the Royal British Legion hall, remembered Patch as "a lovely guy, a gentleman. He spoke his own mind."
Wool recalled that at the launch of the annual poppy appeal last year, Patch had warned some young naval recruits that they shouldn't join.
Wool, a neighbor of Patch's stepson, said Patch wanted only a modest service and to be buried in his native village. Patch will be buried where he was born, in the mining village of Combe Down, 20 miles (33 kilometers) northeast of Wells.
Patch felt no urge to volunteer after war was declared in 1914, but two years later he was drafted into the army, and sent to France in the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry as part of a five-man Lewis Gun team.
He was part of a British offensive which began on July 31, 1917, in the third battle of Ypres.
It rained all but three days of the following month. Patch remembered the battlefield as "mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood."
Recalling a time when he went "over the top" into no man's land, Patch said: "All over the battlefield the wounded were lying down, English and German all asking for help. We weren't like the Good Samaritan in the Bible, we were the robbers who passed and left them. You couldn't help them."
He was wounded on Sept. 22 in a shell blast which killed three members of his gun team.
The offensive carried on until Nov. 6 when the British claimed victory, having advanced five miles (8 kilometers) in three months to capture what was left of the village of Passchendaele. There were nearly 600,000 dead and injured on the two sides.
He returned to the battlefield for the first time in September, laying a wreath which he said was in remembrance all who served "on both side of the line."
Working with historian Richard van Emden, Patch produced a book in 2007, "The Last Fighting Tommy." He donated the profits to purchase a lifeboat.
Patch joined two other veterans – Henry Allingham and Bill Stone – on Nov. 11 at the national Remembrance service in London, all in wheelchairs.
Allingham, 113, an air force veteran, died a week before Patch. Royal Navy veteran Stone, 108 and the last British veteran to serve in both World Wars, died Jan. 10.