Henry, a Hero We Should Tell Our Children about; Death of World's Oldest Man, WW1 Veteran Henry Allingham 1896-2009

Article excerpt


OF all the exceptional people I've met as a journalist - from celebrities to sports stars, the Prime Minister and even royalty - Henry Allingham made me feel the most humble.

Yet Henry, who passed away on Saturday, insisted he was ordinary.

Every time we met I was more impressed, more in awe of him.

Even military top brass felt bowed by this frail old man in a wheelchair who had experienced so much but, when it came to praise and fuss, insisted he deserved little.

Before we said our last goodbyes just a few months ago, Henry and I chatted over cups of tea and cake.

He always held my hand as we spoke because he could no longer see so liked to feel the people he met.

When I told him I was heavily pregnant, he put his craggy hands lightly on my bump and said: "God bless you and your children. Let's hope they live in peace."

I'll tell my children about the amazing man called Henry Alling-ham. We all should.

Living to 113 and 42 days earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest man in the world. But Henry was exceptional for far more than his age.

The valiant First World War veteran did much more than any history book to ram home the realities of war.

HONOURED He was the last survivor of the Battle of Jutland in 1916, a survivor of the Battle of Ypres in 1917, and the sole survivor of the original RAF.

Henry's astonishing stamina, determination and loyalty to lost comrades saw him work constantly to ensure his memories - and their sacrifices - were not forgotten.

Blind, almost deaf and gnarled with arthritis, he made scores of personal visits each year to tell his stories to young people and spread a message of peace. The first time we met was four years ago among rows of stark headstones at the Longuenesse military cemetery in St Omer, France.

Henry had made the exhausting 450-mile journey from his home in Eastbourne, East Sussex, by car.

But he garnered every ounce of strength he had to struggle out of his wheelchair and stand at the gravesides to pay his fallen comrades the respect they deserved.

At our last meeting, Henry was signing copies of his book, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, in front of a long queue of well-wishers, all keen to look into the eyes of a man who had seen life across three centuries. "All these people here, just for me?" he asked.

They were.

And Henry made each one feel honoured and awed. Born in Clapton, East London, on June 6, 1896, Henry was raised solely by his mother after his father died when he was a baby.

Soon after she passed away, the 19year-old apprentice mechanic joined the Royal Naval Air Service.

On September 21, 1915, he was given the number RNAS F8317 and rank Air Mechanic Second Class.

"I didn't really know what I was doing," Henry admitted.

"I was innocent and confused. I had no mother, no father, no home, no real purpose in life. I also had no idea about the hell that awaited me and all the other men. Imagination doesn't stretch that far."

Henry's modesty made his military heroism shine even brighter. He fought on land, sea and in the air for his country.

But his vital stories very nearly went unheard. For 80 years he did not utter a single word of his Great War recollections, which he filed in the far recesses of his mind because they were so painful.

Thanks to Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans' Association, his role in British history is now known.

Dennis, himself a veteran of the Burmese War, tracked Henry down to a small flat on the south coast but had the door slammed in his face many times as Henry wanted nothing to do with the war.

Dennis didn't give up and one day was invited in. Slowly, gently, he persuaded Henry to open long-locked memories. Startling and fascinating war stories came flooding out along with many tears. …