The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

They Who Remain

Yesterday was Veterans Day, typically a day of remembrance for most of us. Henry William Allingham of Great Britain marked the occasion and I think it is fair to say that he did so better than most. In fairness, he had two advantages. First, he is a veteran of combat. Second, he has had a very long time to ponder his memories.

At age one hundred and twelve, Allingham is the oldest man in Great Britain and one of only four surviving veterans of World War I in that nation. A single WWI vet remains in the United States. France, Turkey, and Germany have lost all of their former WWI soldiers.

Allingham wanted to join the military when conflict first broke out in August 1914 but remained at home to care for his ill mother. Upon her death, he enlisted with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as Air Mechanic Second Class. Initially stationed at Great Yarmouth and Bacton Norfolk, he also participated in the Battle of Jutland, the Ypres offensive at Petite-Synthe on the Western Front, and Dunkirk.

When the RNAS and Royal Flying Corps combined in April 1918 to create the Royal Air Force, Allingham became a founding member.

Allingham left the military upon the war’s conclusion and went to work at Ford Motor Company for the next forty years, assembling anti-mine devices there during World War II. He wed and had two daughters. When his wife died after fifty-one years of marriage and then both daughters passed away in their eighties, Allingham withdrew into himself.

Dennis Goodwin, founder of the First World War Veterans' Association, discovered Allingham in 2001 and convinced him to act as an advocate and living narrative for World War I and those who fought in it. Allingham has done so with great passion, culminating in the September 2008 publication of his memoir, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, co-authored by Goodwin.

Yesterday, Allingham joined his fellow centenarian veterans, laying a wreath at the Cenotaph monument in London, where, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Europe and the rest of world marked the ninetieth anniversary of the conclusion of the “War to End All Wars”.

Allingham is nearly blind, mostly deaf, and uses a wheelchair. He insisted upon attempting to stand so he could lay his wreath of poppies by himself. The huge crowd gathered for the ceremony would have willed him to his feet if it could have done so but Allingham’s body was too decrepit. Yet his honor would not have allowed him to try and do less. It is all part of his adopted mission.

“I want everyone to know,” he explains. “They died for us. That's what I want everybody to know and understand.”

Allingham himself braved combat many times during the war and suffered wounds as a result. He earned the British War Medal and Victory Medal during the war and later received the Gold Medal of Saint-Omer and the Légion d'honneur from France.

Despite the accolades heaped upon him and his spokesperson role, there is no jingoism to Allingham’s patriotism. He is determined to memorialize the sacrifices of his fellow soldiers without romanticizing it. He has few fond memories of his own war service and far too many horrific ones.

In his book, Allingham remembers a pilot, shot in the air, who managed to land his plane but then bled to death on the ground as his fellow soldiers watched.

“I've wondered since, if I had known first aid and applied pressure to the wound, could I have saved his life?” he writes. “I've thought about that a lot.”

Ninety years is a long time to ponder the horrors witnessed in one’s youth. Before Goodwin prodded him into it, Allingham seldom spoke about the war. He remains loath to talk about the friends he lost. “I don't like to revive those things, let them be. I would rather not have any more to say about that.”

He is likewise bittersweet about his presence at the Cenotaph. “I don't look forward to it,” he insists.

The passion that now consumes his life is a duty Allingham feels proud to perform but there is no mistaking that it is a duty and not a pleasure for him. “You try to forget, you want to forget, but you couldn't forget,” he says. “Those men must not be forgotten ever. They sacrificed everything on my behalf and your behalf as well.”

Allingham’s comrades at the Cenotaph, although proud of their service and their country, have also come to a similar dour view of war in general. “It was not worth it, it was not worth one, let alone all the millions [who died],” declared Harry Patch, who fought in the trenches. Bill Stone, who served in the Royal Navy, stressed the importance of honoring those who fought on both sides. “Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims.”

Allingham expresses particular sympathy for the soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In his book, he writes, “It was not the same in my war. We were fighting for our country and our homes . . . We had a lot more to lose if we failed.” And he offers the ultimate benediction of any old soldier regarding war – “We have to pray it never happens again.”

Of all the stories in Kitchener's Last Volunteer, perhaps the one most relevant to current America is among Allingham’s earliest memories.

At age six, in 1902, he recalls sitting upon his grandfather’s shoulders and waving a flag as the two joined the crowds thronging the streets of London for the coronation of King Edward VII, following the death of Queen Victoria. Allingham was frustrated. Having just learned the words to “God Save the Queen,” he must now remember to sing “God Save the King” instead.

It must have been an extraordinary moment of change for Allingham and all of Britain. After all, Victoria had been monarch for all of his short life. Of course, the same was very possibly true for his grandfather’s long life as well as the lives of most British citizens.

Less than a decade later, Allingham also remembers watching King Edward’s funeral cortège winding its way from Westminster Abbey. There is little permanence in life, particularly political and government control.

It is not kings or Presidents or other national leaders who make a country over the long run of history but rather an enduring strength in its ordinary people to rise to extraordinary deeds in times of crisis, stoically endure times of extraordinary hardship, and carry on contentedly through the ordinary.

Memory is the glue that bonds one generation to the next. Allingham’s memory of British wars stretches from welcoming veterans of the Second Boer War returning from South Africa to his own experiences to today’s conflicts. When and if the final few Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans reach his exulted age, Allingham, myself, and many of those reading these words today will be decades in our graves.

May we all find the purpose that Allingham has found in remembrance of those who fought and died for our liberties this Veterans Day and beyond. This is not the pleasurable reminiscence of victories won but the solemn commemoration of the price paid for those victories and the resolute determination to attain something better. We have fought and shall continue to fight for freedom when required but our ultimate goal must always be, in Allingham’s words, “never again.”

If we labor to that aspiration, we may each find the vitality that Allingham has achieved – the perseverance of living rather than the endurance of merely surviving. The lines written to honor the dead of Allingham’s war seem equally true when applied to him and his fellow enduring comrades.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted . . .

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn . . .

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are bright in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.

~ Laurence Binyon, excerpts from “For the Fallen,” 1914

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