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Britain's last living WWI veteran doesn't want fallen comrades forgotten

Britain’s oldest living World War I veteran Henry Allingham, 112, signs a poster of a WWI plane in London. He was an aircraft mechanic in the Great War who often flew as an observer.

Associated Press

Britain’s oldest living World War I veteran Henry Allingham, 112, signs a poster of a WWI plane in London. He was an aircraft mechanic in the Great War who often flew as an observer.

LONDON — Henry Allingham is the oldest living link to the 9-million soldiers killed in World War I.

He is 112 now, nearly blind, mostly deaf and uses a wheelchair — none of which stops him from trying to remind everyone of those long gone.

"I don't want to see them forgotten," he says quietly, speaking after the opening of a Royal Air Force Museum exhibition on the conflict. "We were pals."

• • •

For decades, Allingham didn't talk about the Great War. And then, after he hit 100, he made talking about it his mission — the excitement at the start, the thrill of flying, the blood, the lice, the fear, the dead.

His next task is to lay a wreath at Britain's war memorial, the Cenotaph, near the houses of Parliament in London, to mark the 90th anniversary of the war's end. Allingham, Britain's last flier; Harry Patch, the last soldier; and Bill Stone, the last sailor, will lay wreaths on Nov. 11.

They are the last ones standing, out of more than 5-million who fought for Britain. The last survivors in Germany, France and Turkey have died, veterans groups said. The last living American-born veteran is 107-year-old Frank Woodruff Buckles of Charles Town, W.Va.

The dwindling of the ranks has given additional importance to this year's ceremonies, likely the last major anniversary in which they will be able to take part. It comes after a series of 90th-anniversary commemorations of the war's worst battles — the Somme, Jutland, Ypres.

Allingham doesn't talk much about other wars. But he does say in his memoir, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, that he feels sorry for young soldiers fighting in Iraq.

"It was not the same in my war," he says. "We were fighting for our country and our homes ... We had a lot more to lose if we failed."

He takes your hand, covers it between his, until his long soft fingers completely make your hand disappear. He looks into your eyes, trying to remember if he has met you before.

He seems glad you've come. He has something to tell you.

"We have to pray it never happens again."

• • •

In a time when many wars take place far from home, it can be hard to imagine the war to end all wars. The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne during his visit to Sarajevo in 1914 touched off a cataclysm that echoed into much of the ensuing century.

Allingham wanted to leave his job in a car plant and join up right away. But when his widowed mother learned of her only child's plans, she made him promise not to leave. Allingham spent the war's first months refitting trucks for military use.

After his mother died of cancer in 1915, Allingham joined the Royal Naval Air Service, a precursor to the Royal Air Force.

He was hoping to go to East Africa. He ended up on the east coast of England.

Only a dozen years after the Wright brothers first put up their plane at Kitty Hawk, N.C., Allingham and other air pioneers set out on elaborate kites cobbled together with wood, linen and wire. They piled on clothes and smeared their faces in Vaseline, whale oil or engine grease to block the cold.

As a mechanic, Allingham's job was to maintain the rickety craft. He also flew as an observer on a BE2c, a plane with so little power that a strong wind might push it backward. At first, his weaponry consisted of a Lee-Enfield .303 rifle — sometimes two.

He remembered a pilot who landed his plane after being shot, only to bleed to death while his comrades looked on.

"I've wondered since, if I had known first aid and applied pressure to the wound, could I have saved his life?" Allingham wrote. "I've thought about that a lot over the years."

When it was over, he and his wife, Dorothy, had two daughters, and he eventually got a job at Ford. During World War II, he worked on measures to counter magnetic mines. But after that, he didn't talk about wars and armies for the better part of five decades. He wrote that it just wasn't done — people wanted to forget and move forward.

Allingham retired to Eastbourne and played golf until his eyesight failed at 93. Dorothy died in 1970, but when daughter, Jean, died in 2001, friends say he mostly waited to die, too.

That's when he met Dennis Goodwin, an independent inspector for residential care homes, who had discovered that elderly men were often not getting the care they needed to address their war nightmares.

Goodwin encouraged Allinham to share his experiences.

Soon, Allingham began talking to reporters and school groups. He found himself leading military parades. He met Queen Elizabeth II. He wrote his autobiography with Goodwin, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, a reference to Britain's war secretary who rallied men to the cause. Prince Charles wrote the introduction.

• • •

It was a subdued Allingham who attended the exhibition opening. The soft lights set off his pale skin and made him glow at the center of the guests milling around the roped-off enclosure.

He sat in his wheelchair, a blanket with the target-like emblem of the Royal Air Force draped over his knees. The medals pinned to his navy blue jacket glistened.

Tears ran from his watery eyes, his body slumped to the side. He was tired. It's a big responsibility to represent so many now gone. But he's determined.

He'll be at the Cenotaph on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 90 years after guns fell silent.

"I want everyone to know," he says. "They died for us."

Britain's last living WWI veteran doesn't want fallen comrades forgotten 11/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 8, 2008 3:31am]
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