Last first world war veterans were turned into living memorials | Stephen Moss

Survivors such as Claude Choules, who has just died, were remarkable, but not because of what they could tell us

The media started to get excited about first world war veterans about a decade ago, as they reached their centenaries. A mini-publishing industry was growing up around the memories of the final survivors, and I attended an event to mark the publication of a book of first world war songs at which the publisher had gathered together a group of veterans who dutifully sang the songs that had meant so much to them.

With the help of Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans' Association, I arranged to meet four veterans over the next few months, including Harry Patch, who had not then found the fame he was accorded as the lottery of longevity pointed its finger at him.

The meetings were humbling, especially the one with Philip Bristow, who had been one of the UK's first airmen, signing up with the Royal Naval Air Service as a 17-year-old in 1917. He was 101 when we met, and couldn't rise from his bed. Nor could he give me the interview we had planned. He was dying. "If I had a gin and tonic, I could do it," he said. Perhaps longevity was not such a lottery after all. These people had come through the war and lasted so long because of some remarkable spirit granted only to a few.

The interviews were memorable, but not because of what they remembered about the war. History had caught up with them too late for that. They had become living memorials. Patch was fantastic, but perhaps too fantastic. He had his script off pat: "That German coming towards me, I thought why should I murder him? He may have a mother. He may have brothers and sisters. He may be married, bringing up a young family. I can't kill him. And I didn't kill him. I shot him above the ankle and above the knee, and brought him down."

A few years later, the then poet laureate Andrew Motion interviewed Patch and turned his recollections into verse: "First the hard facts of not wanting to fight, / and the kindness of deciding to shoot men / in the legs but no higher unless needs must."

To this day I have no idea whether what Patch said was true. Can you be that precise in the heat of battle?

The oral testimonies gathered in the last years of the veterans' lives had little practical value, because they had spent a lifetime smoothing out their narratives. The real story of the first world war lay with the dead, not the living. Historians give more credence to what soldiers wrote at the time than to anything said afterwards. Letters and diaries count for more than fallible memories.

When I heard Claude Choules describing, in the radio interviews replayed on Thursday, how he hated war, how all soldiers were the same beneath the uniform, I heard again the authentic voice of the survivor, telling the moral tale he knew we wanted to hear.

Too much was being asked of these last survivors: we were willing them to be consciences of a brutal century and they were gamely playing the role allotted to them.

The interview I enjoyed most in 2001 was with 103-year-old Douglas Thomson. His principal wartime memory was of a latrine blowing up when hit by a mortar. The rest was largely forgotten – the war was a hell of a long time ago. But he talked of a trip around Scotland he had made with his son in the early 1960s as if it were yesterday; of battles he had had with his employer in the 1950s that still seemed to grate; of friends he had made in his care home but who had too swiftly departed.

For Thomson, war was a faded, fragile memory; it was the life lived since that mattered. We had turned them into symbols, but were in danger of forgetting they were people. As they told their stories for the umpteenth time, they must have wondered if the lottery of longevity was really a prize worth winning.

We should salute Choules, but not worry overmuch that the final link has gone. That linkage was always a media fiction, a publisher's dream.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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