Thursday, 6 August 2009

A tribute to Harry Patch

As dear old Harry Patch is laid to rest, I am being encouraged to get on with editing the memoirs of my grandfather (above) another Somerset veteran of World War I.

William Percy Withers was born near Wells in 1894. I was nine years old when he died in 1970. I was too young to understand the horrors he had seen all those years ago, nor did I much care. He was by then just Grampa, an old man with a walking stick. A retired tenant farmer, wedded to the land and his large family.

Like Harry Patch, Grampa was an ordinary man. But he had a gift. He was always scribbling away writing poetry, some of it funny, some of it sad. After he died, my aunt had the wonderful idea of publishing some of his work, giving each of the grandchildren a bound copy of his book.

The copyright remains with my sister, Alison, who attended Harry's funeral today. I am sure, though, she will not mind me sharing this with the world, in memory of Harry Patch and all his old comrades. A generation gone but not forgotten.

The Contemptibles

They were just ordinary chaps,
Away back in 'fourteen,
Not saints nor sinners; yet perhaps,
Just somewhere in between.

From every kind of home they came,
From slum, from cottage, hall,
But were, in one respect, the same,
For they were heroes, all.

But had somebody told them so,
They'd treat it as a jest,
"Blimey! That's just rot, you know,
We only did our best."

"Contemptible" - the Kaiser's word -
They hailed it with acclaim,
Then, with a humour quite absurd,
They took it for their name.

Their orders were "You must retreat";
The way was long and hard,
But they, despite their aching feet,
Contested every yard.

At last, from Ypres to the sea,
They held the foe at bay,
Determined that the enemy
Should never pass that way.

Quite soon some other chaps appeared,
To hasten to their aid;
These were the first who volunteered,
Ill-trained, but unafraid.

Outgunned, outnumbered hopelessly,
All hope indeed seemed gone,
They still hurled back the enemy,
And grimly soldiered on.

And now was Britain, through their fight,
Enabled time to gain,
To organise again her might,
To enrol, to arm, to train.

The outcome now of their great deeds
is plain for all to see;
Their heroism sowed the seeds
That bloomed to victory.

A watered ribbon, silver rose,
A crude star made of bronze -
An emblem proud indeed to those
Who wear the Star of Mons.

Men yet unborn will hail their fame,
Though the last one has gone;
On history's page a glorious name -
And time goes marching on.

Grampa fought with the North Somerset Yeomanry where he saw service in the Somme and lost many dear friends and comrades. When the war ended, Percy took up a farm tenancy in Barton St David, Somerset, before moving to farm at Donyatt, near Ilminster, in 1920.

1 comment:

Pondside said...

Well done, Maddie, to post a tribute to your grandfather and to all of those of the lost generation.
My grandparents died young, so I never knew them, but I remember the grandfathers of friends - old men who were at Mons and Vimy Ridge - seemingly old men who spent their working years gasping for breath and then died before real old age set in. All those boys who sailed across the ocean to be slaughtered at Beaumont-Hamel and other now-picturesque places.
I listened to a newscast on Harry Patch's funeral yesterday and heard his voice. Thanks for this post.