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Thinking about the 'Last Tommy' and desperately important lessons

The First World War now seems as ancient as Agincourt to young men and women, but its horror and devastating impact can still be felt even as its most desperately important lessons are lost.

We've been thinking about Harry Patch, the last of the Tommies living in Britain. He died at the age of 111 and was, as you know, honoured at Wells Cathedral on August 6th. Harry Patch fought at Passchendaele and saw "hell upon this earth". . . In his last years, he became a strong advocate of peace and reconciliation.

Harry Patch fought at the Battle of Passchendaele (also known as the Third Battle of Ypres) and saw "hell upon this earth". At Passchendaele, British, ANZAC and Canadian soldiers hoped to relieve French forces, carve a decisive corridor to the coast through German forces and seize German submarine bases. During the battle, between July 31st and November 6th, half a million Allied and German soldiers died.

The number of men and women lost in World War One is almost unimaginable. It is estimated that 37 million were wounded or killed.

Harry Patch, the retired plumber whose friends paid tribute to his "Edwardian sparkle" and his ideals, hated the war. In his last years, he became a strong advocate of peace and reconciliation.

The forgotten lesson of the First World War is that the greed, fear and lust for power of unaccountable, undemocratic leaders strangled hopes for peace. Undemocratic countries started the war.

Undemocratic Russia, which felt protective and possessive over the Slavic Balkans, wanted to break Ottoman control over the Dardanelles and Bosporus so it could send ships into the Mediterranean. Undemocratic Austria-Hungary was determined to keep its empire intact and maintain its rule over Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians, Italians, Slovenes, Croats and Serbs who wanted to rule themselves in free and independent nations. Led by the vainglorious Kaiser, undemocratic Germany envied Britain's ascendancy and was determined to dominate Europe.

We think it's worth remembering this because history suggests that peace and reconciliation can only really occur between democratic peoples. Most people on earth want peace, but only people with democratic institutions have any chance of preventing their leaders from taking them into war.

According to research in Imperial German archives, belatedly opened in the 1960s, the Kaiser was looking for a reason to launch a war against Russia and its ally France. He believed that growing Russian military power would end his dreams of European dominion. The assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince in Serbia by a Serbian nationalist on June 28th 1914, and subsequent knee-jerk European reactions, gave him his excuse.

Determined to punish and control Serbia, Austria–Hungary delivered an ultimatum in July. Russia tried to protect Slavic Serbia. Britain attempted to arrange a conference of great nations to stop the looming disaster, to no avail.

Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia. Russia mobilized. The Kaiser declared war against Russia and France, and threatened to invade Belgium. Pledged to defend Belgium's neutrality, Britain warned Germany it would protect Belgium. Germany was not concerned. Britain was strong on the seas but had a small army. Germany invaded Belgium and France. War began in August 1914.

A second vital lesson is that war can be prevented by having an adequate defence.

Harry's coffin was borne by soldiers of 1st Battalion The Rifles, with two soldiers of each of the armed forces of Belgium, France and Germany acting as pall-bearers.

Elgar's Nimrod was played at the end of the service.

Peace and reconciliation, yes, but never at the cost of democracy. Once democracy is lost, so too are peace and reconciliation.

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