Page last updated at 11:12 GMT, Saturday, 18 July 2009 12:12 UK

Oldest man's dedication to fallen

Henry Allingham with aircraft
Mr Allingham was a founder member of the Royal Air Force

The world's oldest man and World War I survivor Henry Allingham spent his final years ensuring the memory of his fallen comrades lived on.

Mr Allingham, from Sussex, who has died aged 113, had a co-written book about his life published in September.

He said he would not have been able to tell his story if it had not been for those who had given their lives.

Mr Allingham was honoured many times during the last years of his life for keeping their memory alive.

He became the world's oldest man in June after Tomoji Tanabe died in his sleep at his home in southern Japan, aged 113.

In the last few months of his life Mr Allingham was given a doctorate in engineering at Southampton Solent University and he was made an an honorary freeman of Brighton and Hove.

Appreciation for comrades

In March 2008 he was made an honorary member of the Royal Naval Association and also received an upgraded Legion d'Honneur in London, six years after receiving his first one.

During the launch of his book, Kitchener's Last Volunteer, at the RAF Club in Piccadilly, central London, he was in tears as he spoke of his appreciation for the comrades who lost their lives in the war.

The men in the trenches were the ones who won the war, poor devils
Henry Allingham

"Thank goodness for those people. I could never thank them enough.

"If it wasn't for them, our privileges would have been destroyed. We probably would not even be here now," he said.

A Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, involving a Lancaster bomber, Spitfire and Hurricane, marked his 112th birthday in June 2008.

The party for Mr Allingham, who lived in a care home in Ovingdean, near Brighton, was held at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire.

He greatly enjoyed such occasions, and always attributed his long life to "cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women".

In 2007 he won a special recognition award at the 2007 Pride of Britain Awards for his dedication to teaching children about his experiences.

Mr Allingham received the freedom of Eastbourne, his home town of more than 40 years, in 2006.

Dreadful days

In 2003, the French awarded him their highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, in recognition of his service at Ypres and the Somme.

Recalling the dreadful days of the war was far from easy for him.

"For 86 years I didn't talk about the war - couldn't bear to," he said in 2005.

"I avoided books and films and all the get-togethers. Now that I'm one of the last survivors, I know it's important to talk about it."

Born in 1896 in east London, Mr Allingham was 18 at the outbreak of the war and admitted many decades later that he did not at first realise the gravity of the situation.

He did not enlist until 1915 after the death of his mother at the age of 42.

He joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a mechanic, repairing aircraft and engines and flying patrols of the North Sea as a navigator.

'Stench of death'

Before the guns finally fell silent in 1918, he had seen horrors he would have preferred to forget.

Chancellor Gordon Brown and Henry Allingham
Gordon Brown with Mr Allingham on his 110th birthday

"To understand the hell of war you had to be there - the imagination doesn't stretch that far," he said.

He was shot in the arm at Passchendaele, and the memory of the trenches always haunted him.

"Standing there in 2ft of rat-infested water, in mud-filled trenches - terrible, terrible hardship... living in the ground, infected with lice, waiting to go over the top and probably be mown down.

"It was a disgrace to be there - the men in the trenches were the ones who won the war, poor devils."

Once he fell into a shell hole full of body parts, rotten flesh and rats.

"Horrifying. I can't describe, or forget, the smell - the stench of death," he said.

Guest of honour

He served in the most important sea engagement of the war - the Battle of Jutland in 1916 - aboard HMS Kingfisher, one of the first aircraft carriers.

More than 8,000 British and German sailors lost their lives in one day's fighting, but the British Grand Fleet established dominance on the North Sea for the rest of the war.

The battle of Jutland, picture from a British destroyer
Mr Allingham was the last British survivor of the Battle of Jutland

"I remember being stricken with fear as shells from the German fleet came straight for the ship and the disbelief as they bounced right over the top of us, ricocheting off the bows," he said.

On the battle's 90th anniversary, Mr Allingham was the Imperial War Museum's guest of honour at the opening of a commemorative exhibition.

A hologram of him was also displayed on board the naval museum, HMS Belfast, moored on the River Thames.

And on the 90th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme later in 2006, he travelled to France to be part of a ceremony also attended by the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall.

'Owe so much'

Later he met Germany's oldest World War I veteran, travelling to Witten near Dortmund to greet 109-year-old Robert Meier.

In 2004, when Mr Allingham went to France to open officially a memorial at St Omer, near Calais, in honour of his fallen comrades, he said: "We owe so much to these men, who gave all they could have given on my behalf and everyone's behalf.

"It is so important that we acknowledge them."

He was there again on Armistice Day 2005 to lay wreaths at the memorial to the 4,700 British air personnel to die while fighting on the Western Front.

Two days later he was in London, taking part in the march past the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

Henry Allingham in his Royal Naval Air Service uniform
Mr Allingham enlisted at 19 and served at Ypres and the Somme

In 2007 he met the Queen at a Buckingham Palace garden party to mark the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele.

At the end of World War I he transferred to the newly-formed Royal Air Force, and was the last surviving founding member.

Last days

He was discharged in 1919, but later joined the Royal Navy and was among the sailors involved in the evacuation of Dunkirk in World War II.

In civilian life he worked for Ford until he retired in 1961.

His wife, Dorothy, whom he married in Chingford, Essex, in 1919, died in 1970 and he also outlived their two daughters, Betty and Jean.

He had five grandchildren, 12 great grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild

He spent his last days at St Dunstan's care home for ex-servicemen and women where he moved in May 2006.



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SEE ALSO
Oldest man writes his life story
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Britain's oldest man reaches 112
06 Jun 08 |  England
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Oldest man marks 111th birthday
06 Jun 07 |  Sussex
Oldest veteran remembers fallen
13 Nov 05 |  England

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