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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 19:10 GMT 20:10 UK
Distinguished visitor brings WWI to life
By Rajesh Mirchandani
Midlands correspondent, BBC News

Henry Allingham with Thomas Wooding (left) and Faye Chadwick (right)
Henry Allingham's visit bridged a generation gap of nearly 100 years
It started out as an enterprising school project and ended up as a living history lesson.

When pupils in Tamworth, Staffs, wrote a series of letters to war veterans, Britain's oldest man Henry Allingham offered to answer their questions about World War I face-to-face.

The BBC observed how the generation gap was bridged and two of the pupils reveal what they learned.

"How would you like to be remembered?"

The question was posed by a 13-year-old schoolgirl sitting opposite 110-year-old Henry Allingham, who is Britain's oldest surviving veteran of the First World War.

"I couldn't care less," he said, to much laughter and with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes that belies his age.

What Henry does care about is trying to give young people a flavour of his incredible memories.

And he certainly managed that at Wilnecote High School in Tamworth.

I was quite surprised to see the group of around 40 pupils aged 13 and 14 quite so enthralled by the words of a man nearly a century older.

Henry Allingham
Henry Allingham's recollections kept his young audience entranced

But they were fascinated by his tales of giving two small German children a Christmas gift of two Jaffa oranges. "They were not gold-dust then," he said. "They were platinum dust."

The students also enjoyed hearing how a young Henry used to chat up women in his uniform. We never found out if it worked.

But it was when one young girl asked what he most remembered about World War I that Henry painted his most vivid picture.

He told us how he had fallen into a rain-filled shell hole one night.

"Dead rats in that shell hole, human flesh, all rotting, who knows what in there...it was terrible," he said.

What textbook could give you that kind of details?

Life over three centuries

And the children agreed.

"I'm honoured that he's come to talk to us," said one.

"The books tell us about the battles but they don't tell you what people who were there thought about them," said another.

A third told me: "Henry lived in three centuries... it's incredible.

Before Easter there were four British World War I veterans left. Now there are three, such is their growing frailty.

Henry Allingham wants to keep meeting as many young people for as long as he can. He loves their confidence, he said.

"Much different from my day when children were to be seen and not heard."

What was the worst war, a 13-year-old girl asked Henry. "The one I had!" he joked.

There are precious few left like Henry Allingham and a few moment spent in his company hearing his memories were precious moments for young and old alike.

Wilnecote High School pupil FAYE CHADWICK writes:

Faye Chadwick and Henry Allingham

Having Henry at our school was brilliant as it gave us first hand information about what the war was like.

Textbooks are good but they aren't necessarily reliable whereas Henry's accounts are accurate as he has been there and actually seen it all happen.

I think he is one of the world's most treasured people, as no-one knows better what happened than he does. Henry told us about one time when he was about 13 and his mother sat him on her lap and told him to be a good boy.

I think it is something special that Henry remembered these words from his mother and that he has taken them with him through his long life.

All the people that spoke to Henry are very privileged as soon unfortunately there will be no survivors of the First World War left.

Even though I have only spoken to Henry for an hour or so I feel like I know him and that the information he has told me I will remember for a very long time.

Fellow Year Nine pupil THOMAS WOODING adds:

Thomas Wooding

The books don't tell you what it was really like but this is somebody who has been in battle themselves.

He thoroughly enjoyed answering and telling stories of his experiences whilst in the Navy and the RAF during the war.

All the pupils were intrigued about Henry's stories and in some cases he brought tears to our eyes with some heartbreaking moments.

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