Watching the movie 1917 reminded me of meeting Henry Allingham. He saw WG Grace bat. He saw the battle of the Somme from the air in an aircraft made of wood, cloth and wire. He was the oldest man in the country when I met him in 2007 and he lived to be the oldest man in the world, dying just over a year later at 113. I publish this edited version of my story from The Independent in honour of the boys who were lost. They were still boys in his eyes and always will be.
Henry is a very, very old boy indeed. Nearly a century has passed since he flew over the trenches of the Somme in the back seat of an aircraft. The pilot was hit by rifle fire from below and began to pass out. The ground came up fast but Henry survived the crash landing. He knew he had to haul his friend out of the cockpit before the engine fumes caught fire and they were both burned alive. He had seen that happen to other people.
“Bunny Edwards!” he shouts suddenly, startling the only other resident in the lounge. That was the pilot’s name. “Beautiful swimmer,” says Henry. His milky, half-blind eyes are weepy. “I pulled him out of that plane. He had a bullet in the groin.”
Bunny died. So have so many other men and women over the years, from the young lads Henry left behind in the mud of the First World War to those life-long friends who have gone on before him. Henry is not as well as he was last summer when the Navy threw a special party for him on board HMS Victory; or when he appeared at the televised Pride of Britain awards and grabbed the microphone from Carol Vorderman. He loves an audience, and the people in the studio loved the old soldier back as he gave them his best line about living so long because of “cigarettes and whisky and wild, wild women”.
That’s a laugh, because he married Dorothy in 1918 and was with her until she died in 1970. There has never been anyone else. He wants to sit up in his wheelchair now, like he did that night, but his body won’t do it. So he stays almost curled up, clutching at the white walking stick between his knees. “I’m not so good,” he mumbles wearily into his chest. “These last four months. I can’t expect to go on. It’s asking too much.”
But going on is what Henry Allingham is famous for. In the year leading up to his last birthday he made more than 60 public appearances, encouraged and cared for and sometimes nursed by Dennis Goodwin, an expert on the First World War who has made it his life’s work to look after the interests of the remaining veterans.
Tomorrow Henry is due at the Imperial War Museum to meet Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, although he hasn’t a clue who Harry Potter is.
On Thursday he is booked to travel to France to lay a wreath. But that seems unlikely, as he sits with his eyes closed at the St Dunstan’s home for ex-servicemen in Brighton.
His face is pale, in contrast to his charcoal sweater and black cravat. Those hands on the stick are twisted and veined, the skin as dry, crackly and translucent as onion paper. Is it time to leave him alone, quietly? Not a chance. This is Henry Allingham, the RAF’s oldest surviving founder member. He can make other claims on history too.
“We saw the soldiers coming home too, marching down the street,” he says of a childhood in which his favourite game – after cricket – was to dress up as a wounded infantryman with a bandage on his head. But soldiers from which war? “South Africa.” Of course. He lived through the Western Front, lost his campaign medals in the Blitz, saw war evolve from the cavalry charge to Cruise missiles, but before any of that he saw the City Imperial Volunteers come home from the Boer War.
Henry was born in 1896. He lost his father, like Lewis, but was only a baby at the time. When his mother died in 1915 he joined up, and a year later was an aircraft mechanic servicing a seaplane during the Battle of Jutland. Then came the Somme.
“Much later I was on the train in London,” Henry remembers, “and a woman got in with a baby. She looked at my uniform and said: ‘I see you were overseas, flying. Did you know my husband, Mr Edwards?’ I said I did actually. I knew him well.
“All she wanted to know was whether he suffered when he died. I told her the truth. He didn’t suffer. He lost consciousness first.”
Henry tells that story when asked if he thinks of anybody in particular at all those remembrance events. The remarkable thing is that for eight decades he told no stories and attended no events at all, refusing to talk about the war. Having outlived his wife and his two daughters, and seen the rest of his family move to America, he was living as a recluse in East Sussex when Dennis Goodwin tracked him down six years ago. Since then Henry has become perhaps the best-known veteran of them all. “You made me feel I was being disrespectful to the men I knew by not talking about it,” he tells Dennis, who has been patiently repeating my questions into his ear. “It was wrong of me to do that.”
When Henry goes into schools he talks to teenagers only a little younger than the ones he saw mown down on the Western Front. Children also ask what it is like to be so old. Henry says he would have preferred to have got out early “at 96 or 97”. They ask about death, of course, and he says he’s ready. Is there a heaven?
“Everlasting life?” he cackles. “You don’t think you go up there do you? Ha! That table there, the wood, stones, rocks, everything is capable of reproducing itself. That is everlasting life. Not this…” With a huge grin Henry attempts to raise his elbows and flap them like angel wings. It’s daft and funny and he knows it.
“When I was a kid,” he says slowly, gasping again, “my mum took me aside and gave me a big kiss. She said: ‘You’re a good boy.’ I remembered that for the rest of my life.” The rest of his words are hardly there at all, but they can be lip read. “I have never let her down.”
A sense of duty, deep and strong. He is determined that we who know nothing about fighting will pay attention for once, and acknowledge the sacrifices made on our behalf.
When the “Last Post” is played around the country it will bring tears to the eyes of veterans who may look like they love the pomp and polish, but will really be there because they cannot shake off the vivid memories of Bunny, or Jim, or Grace or whatever the names were of those friends who never grew old.
“Those were my pals,” says Henry. “They gave all they had. They can’t speak for themselves, so I have to.” With his last breath. And when he is gone, as he surely will be soon, will we still remember the Great War in the same way?
“I don’t think so, no,” says Aircraft Mechanic Second Class Allingham, almost ready to stand at ease, at last. “But I have done my best.”
Henry Allingham: born in East London, 1896; died in East Sussex, 2009.
The image comes from Patrick Sawer’s account of Henry Allingham’s life in the Sunday Telegraph, which is here