Harry Patch is now a national icon, the last surviving British combat soldier of the First World War until he died aged 111 years, 1 month, 1 week and 1 day.
But when I first met and filmed him just over 20 years ago he had never told his story before. His memories had until then been too upsetting for him to put into words.
Harry was tearful as he told how on September 22 1917 he and his pals – gunners in a Lewis Gun team – were blown up by a German artillery shell which exploded overhead, badly wounding Harry and killing three of his friends.
He said: “They were simply blown to pieces. I never found anything of them. They took the whole blast of the shell. I’d lost three good mates. September 22 that is my remembrance day not Armistice Day.”
Finally sharing his story gave Harry a new lease of life. He found love with Doris Whitaker – 16 years his junior who he called his soul mate, in the care home where he lived in Wells, Somerset.
Then he wrote a best-selling book – The Last Fighting Tommy – on his terrifying experiences in the front line and his broader life story with historian Richard van Emden.
With the proceeds from the book Harry bought a lifeboat. He said he had seen so much death as a young man he wanted to help save lives as he approached the end of his own.
He named the boat “The Harry and the Doris.”
Growing in confidence and speaking more and more in public, Harry became an international figure warning of the dangers of war and the need for world peace.
Harry, born in 1898, was originally a plumber before being conscripted in October 1916 to serve in the army.
Too old to serve in World War Two he became a part time fireman in Bath helping to deal with the German air-raids on the city.
He retired from his work as a plumber in 1963, and before he met Doris he had married twice, outliving both wives, as well as both his sons.Harry died on July 25 2009. He is buried in St Michael’s Church. Monkton Combe in Somerset. People still go there on pilgrimages to see his grave.