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Last Updated: Friday, 25 July, 2003, 08:57 GMT 09:57 UK
Last post for Great War veterans
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

Of the millions of men who witnessed World War I, just a handful remain. What are we about to lose?

"I was once sent out into No Man's Land with another man to a shell crater by the German trench. They were just yards away - you could hear them talking and stamping their feet to keep warm," World War I veteran Jack Davis told BBC News Online last year.

"Unfortunately, my comrade was shell-shocked. He was whimpering like a child," continued Mr Davis, delivering the words slowly and deliberately, between gasping breaths. "We couldn't stay there with him like that - I saw three Germans who might have surrounded us. That would have meant surrender, or worse, the finish. I threw my hand grenade and we went back to our trench."

The old soldier's son, Ken, was taken aback. "I've never heard that story before," he said. Even 84 years after he came home from the trenches, Mr Davis still had more to say about a conflict which decimated a generation as no other British war ever has.

Jack Davis often returned to the battlefields of his youth

The death of the former infantryman this week - aged 108 - robs us of any more of his untold stories and yet another human reminder of an event which so many nations vowed never to forget.

With the passing of Mr Davis, the ranks of the UK's World War I veterans association has dwindled to just 33 members - though a 104-year-old man has just been sent an application form to join.

"Their lives are becoming more and more significant as their numbers diminish," says Dennis Goodwin, who runs the association.

For much of their long lives, these survivors of the "war to end all wars" were seldom asked about their experiences.

"When there were many veterans, people in the UK weren't interested in them. My father fought in the war, as did all my school friends' dads, but it was never talked about. Even our comic books avoided the war," says Mr Goodwin.

Anzac Alec Campbell in 1915
Alec Campbell - known as The Kid at 16 in the war - became a national icon at 103
Longevity has given the remaining veterans' memories a rarity value, at the very same time as historians, writers and film makers have come to recognise the importance of hearing from ordinary citizens as well as the great and the good whose views once dominated the history books.

This attention has puzzled some veterans. Alec Campbell, the final survivor of the disastrous Australian landing at Gallipoli was elevated to iconic status in his homeland.

"Alec has become national property, although I'm not sure he realises it," his wife said. When he died last summer, aged 103, flags were lowered to half-mast and Prime Minister John Howard cut short a foreign trip to attend the state funeral.

Alfred Anderson - at 107 the oldest British survivor of the trenches, though not the UK's oldest veteran - wonders why people should be keen to hear his stories.

"Why has all this come up again? All these years I've been trying to forget the war, to put it behind me," he says.

Mr Anderson says in recent months his opinions on the morality of war have been sought as his old regiment, The Blackwatch, invaded Iraq.

Veterans Robert Urquhart and Alfred Anderson
Alfred Anderson (r) has been trying to put the war behind him for 80 years
"I'm not angry that the Great War didn't turn out to be the war to end all wars. Getting angry doesn't do any good. Wars are futile and a loss to both sides. I was very worried about The Blackwatch in Iraq and thought some wouldn't come back."

Though Mr Anderson points out that modern battles are far different to the trench warfare he endured, the very existence of veterans such as he acts as an important reminder to the nation that wars are best not rushed into casually - as happened in the summer of 1914.

"I think often of the war," says Mr Anderson. "I think of the loss of all the lads I went to school with."

If the words of the surviving veterans lend power and poignancy to discussions of the war, what will our understanding of the conflict be when it finally slips from living memory?

American troops go over the top
Will the war be more distant when all the veterans are gone?
"I don't think it will stop anyone making a perfectly valid documentary about the war," says Philip Nugus, whose TV series World War I in Colour is currently showing on Five.

"We interviewed several veterans and their personal recollections make the subject more accessible to viewers, but in years to come we'll still have historians to tell the story with conviction."

Mr Nugus says that in recent decades a great deal of veterans' stories have been recorded for the archives and that these accounts will continue to give us an insight into the war's savagery.

The veterans association's Dennis Goodwin says filmed interviews have their limits.

"The vivid memories are admittedly few and far between, but when I've watched the veterans on film their stories seem to lack something. It's never as good as hearing them in person or listening to a few veterans together, when they really start to spark off each other. And they're always ready for a song."

BBCi History has a special website for people who wish to tell their stories of World War II. You can find it by clicking on the links on the right hand side.


SEE ALSO:
Oldest war veteran reaches 106
25 Jun 02  |  Scotland
Oldest Great War veteran dies
21 Jul 03  |  Beds/Bucks/Herts


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