Saturday, December 19, 2009

Harry Patch

The Economist (12/19/09) magazine's year in review issue arrived recently. It notes that the last two British WW1 veterans of the trenches died this year. A number of these men lived to be well over a hundred, and two of them, a British soldier named Harry Patch and a German soldier named Carol (Charles) Kuentz, had been conscripted at age 19 and served on the front lines.

I was thinking about this as I prepare to preach tomorrow on Zechariah's song (the Benedictus if you're a liturgical type of person) from Luke's Gospel, chapter 1. In it, Zechariah speaks of God visiting his people, to give them relief from their enemies and freedom from fear. He will lead them from the shadow of death into peace.

The most extraordinary thing about that song, to me, is that the first reading of it gives us a sense that God visiting means an end to war and defeat of the enemy. And in the end, it will mean that. But the salvation that is referenced by Zechariah is not a military one, but a spiritual one, as he says that his son, John the Baptist, will announce the visit of God who will give salvation "in the forgiveness of their sins".

It seems offensive at first in the face of the scale of war to say that salvation takes this form rather than relief from circumstances. I recently saw a video clip showing footage of the Battle of the Somme, in which there were 20,000 British dead and 40,000 wounded...on the first day of battle. There were 623,000 dead from that one battle alone. The scale is dreadful and dehumanizing. As Harry Patch said, "It is not something we can make up. Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew?". Yet his statement, and the meeting he had with Kuentz shows that really the change in the world comes as the human heart is transformed. In Harry Patch's case, he lost his childhood faith in the trenches. Death was a topic never mentioned in the trenches. Yet Harry Patch first cried over his wartime experiences after he was a hundred years old, never having spoken of them before then, and the same was true for Charles Kuentz, the last surviving German veteran of WW1. Patch and Kuentz met for the first time when they were 107, at a cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers were buried. Mr. Patch laid a wreath and gave a gift of an acorn from the ground to Herr Kuentz, saying "Now we are friends." Imagine carrying the sadness, bitterness and fear in your heart for so long (perhaps you can imagine it). But a considerable amount of freedom came to Harry Patch in the last years of his life, because 100 wasn't too late for him.

Zechariah, an old man, was silenced by God when he doubted the Word God spoke. But when he was given speech again, he used his voice to proclaim salvation, the forgiveness of sins.

Incidentally, Radiohead wrote a song in memory of Harry Patch, which can be heard here.

This marker (pictured above) was placed in France where Harry Patch's company fought. The text reads:

Here, at dawn, on 16 August 1917, the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 20th (Light) Division crossed the Steenbeek prior to their successful assault on the village of Langemarck.
This stone is erected to the memory of fallen comrades, and to honour the courage, sacrifice and passing of the Great War generation. It is the gift of former Private and Lewis Gunner Harry Patch, No. 29295, C Company, 7th DCLI, the last surviving veteran to have served in the trenches of the Western Front.

September 2008

Photograph: Parliamentary War Graves & Battlefield Heritage Group

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