Emotional church visit for relatives of Shropshire's Harry Patch
It’s almost 100 years since Harry Patch married his first wife in Telford.
The ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ – the final surviving soldier of World War One from any country – settled in Shropshire after meeting wife Ada Billington, who he literally bumped into as he came down the steps from a cinema in Birmingham.
Now, almost a century after the wedding day, one of Harry’s closest surviving family members has visited the place where they tied the knot.
The pair married at Hadley’s Holy Trinity Church on September 13, 1919 and spent their honeymoon in Church Stretton, remaining with each other until she died in 1976.
In a surprise visit, his niece, Betty Milliship, aged 84, who lives in Farnborough, Hampshire, was in the area visiting her cousin Margaret Evans, from Wellington.
She secretly took her to the church in Waterloo Road along with family, and it wasn’t until Mrs Milliship saw the plaque dedicated to her uncle that she realised what was happening, and the floodgates opened. Speaking at the church she said: “I can’t believe it’s all happening. It’s been very kind of people to get this organised and I really appreciate it.
“Margaret said she had a surprise but kept saying we mustn’t be too long, and I was wondering who we were seeing.
“Harry was married to my father’s sister. They were married in Shropshire and it would have been in this church.
“He lived in Street in Somerset for quite a long time. I used to take my father there to see him.
“He was all part of the family when we were younger and a really lovely chap and very good fun.”
The son of stonemason William Patch, Harry was born in Combe Down, near Bath, and died at the age of 111, on July 25, 2009.
At that time, he was the third-oldest man in the world and the oldest man in Europe.
A year before, Patch was presented with a painting of the Wrekin after talking of his desire to one day reach its summit.
He served as an assistant gunner in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, where half a million men died.
He once put his longevity down to “the Shropshire air”.
Sadly, it wasn’t until his death that Betty actually realised her uncle had been the oldest living veteran of the Great War after not seeing him for some time.
But together with her husband Geoffrey, also 84, they managed to secure tickets for the televised funeral at Wells Cathedral in August 2009, with the likes of The Duchess of Cornwall in attendance.
She said: “It was really sad that we hadn’t been in contact with him but my cousin was going to be at the funeral and she died. I was the only representative at the funeral.
“He didn’t speak much about the war. People of that age didn’t want to talk about it, it was something very unpleasant that happened in the past but they preferred not to talk about it in later life.
“They talked about him on television at the memorial service this year. We’re 84 so the fact it was so many years ago I can’t remember many memories. It’s important just for people to be able to understood his part in the war and that he was a survivor.”
It was 100 years last week since the war ended for Harry Patch, the unassuming plumber who went on to become the last living veteran of the First World War.
The memory of his last moments fighting in the Battle of Passchendaele stayed with him for his life, but there were some things he felt just too traumatised to talk about.
Three men perished in front of him on his final day of the battle.
It happened as his five-man Lewis gun team was walking across open ground when a shell exploded above their heads and the group carrying the ammo supply were instantly blown to pieces.
He was hit in the groin by shrapnel and thrown to the ground. He managed to get to the dressing station, where he realised that, although painful, his wound was not life threatening.
Betty’s cousin Margaret Evans said: “I saw it in the paper that Harry was the last man standing years ago, rang Betty up and told her and she said ‘that’s my uncle’, which is how it really started. Then any cuttings I had I started sending over.
“I came to a concert here and saw that plaque. I rang her up and told her. I said one day you’ll be able to see it.
“But she had no idea where she was coming to today.”