Mr Patch and Mr Allingham

Yes! We have heard of the courage of heroes,
the heart’s deep warning in two men’s words.
For four score years, too shocked, they kept silence;
till aged a hundred, each on his own
unlocked a word-hoard, and let loose an enemy.
What hell it brought, what hardship of memory,
to re-live the grief of the Great War!
True historians, for ten years and more
they travelled on, in transit to death,
their voices trembling, to tell the young world
not what it was like, but what it was.
At last they fell. It is left to the living
to admit the debt, owed and unpayable,
to Harry Patch and Henry Allingham.

Memories opened. I am up to my armpits
in a stinking pond I mis-stepped into
in the dark. Dirt swells against my eyes,
I belly-flop out and fall back in,
the carcasses of rats rise up round my neck,
the body-parts of men brush at my arms,
swim over my face, swathe my legs.
I cannot get out.” Again Mr Allingham
entered the lake. To let us know
the full unspeakable he spoke out, spending
his hours and energies next to life’s end
in the re-possession of perfect nightmare.
Many such moments resurfaced in talks
of a slow, scratchy speech to schools and servicemen.

“ ‘The papers have come for Mr Patch,’
my mother said. That ‘Mr’ of hers
made me laugh. I was loth to go:
my brother had told me of the trenches at Ypres,
the muck and the mayhem. But Mr Patch went.
It was ninety years after, the other day,
I saw three of my mates in C Company killed.
As the shell hit the shrapnel tore
my abdomen open. With no anaesthetic
and four men hanging on to me they hacked it out.
Someone turned on the light in the linen cupboard
in the nursing home and I saw it and heard it
again. I cried out. Shall I ever calm down?
They never found a scrap of my fellows.”

He too gave talks, grew tired in interview,
let the enemy in. Much was affectionate:
the ounce of tobacco always sent from home;
the green Somerset hill he haunted as a boy
that would hover at dawn and disappear.
In the sodden and stinking trench itself
there were fewer lies and more lice
than anywhere else. There was nowhere else.
Only fields of mud in which horses floundered
and drowned. Men sank. Mud seas: in the dry,
mud crusted with blood. To encroach a few yards
was the day’s work. Mr Patch once watched dogs
at war for a biscuit. He burned with envy.
“Where is our biscuit? What is our bone?”

The light and fast new Lewis gun
was a treasure to his hands; and he was entrusted
with the provision and maintenance of parts.
His body rammed flat, a recruit’s cloth cap
shading his eyes, he shot – not to kill,
only to wound. He was not aware
of once betraying that trust in himself,
as he made good the pact he had with his mates.
On the trench’s firing-step he snatched his sleep.
Mr Allingham slept under lorries,
boots for a pillow. He learned to fly biplanes,
Avros, Sopwith Schneiders; to spot crashed planes,
and start to retrieve them. He knew of air’s tragedy,
these “motorised kites”, no sooner up than killing.

He was born to fly. As a boy he had seen
some of the first planes slowly circling.
“When I went up a basket went with me,
two carrier pigeons in place of a radio.
The whole blessed thing was no more than a basket,
a frail contraption of fabric, wood and wire,
an open cockpit. I caked my face
with whale oil or Vaseline. And I revelled in it,
the magic of Icarus, to make free with the sky.
But I ask you, I ask you, consider the outcome
of the first hundred years of the history of flight.
Trade and travel are a treasure of nations;
but from my first taking aim up to the Twin Towers,
all I see is a dog-fight of the air.”

For Mr Patch, too, a re-appraisal
forced its way. “The Church is a fairy-tale.
How can angels dance with these devils swarming
out of the ground?” In great age
he laid a wreath at Languemarck,
a vast cemetery for German soldiers.
Before, he had tried but failed; he merely
sat and wept. To a German survivor,
Mr Kuentz, he gave an acorn
from the ground. “Now we are friends,”
said Mr Kuentz. They sat by the graves.
Mr Allingham exchanged gifts
with Mr Meier at a war memorial.
For a second’s eternity they shook hands.

Can we thank them enough, these old old men?
Henry Allingham and Harry Patch
turned away from the tumult, a time of mad terror,
of feral futility, a filth of the spirit.
Then each opened the door. What drove them, what drew them?
After so long to enter again
an Earth turned to Hell? Was it not a hope?
When Beowulf had ruled a hundred half-years
he slew and was slain by a serpent-dragon.
The majesty of epic mirrors the meaning:
but these men were real. Marching against
the devils of the ground, the devils of the air,
with a young fervour, the frailest of bodies
breathed out a hope for the human race.

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