Great War Veterans – Remembering Henry
In the news recently was the story of Florence Green, the last surviving World War 1 military veteran passed away, just shy of her 111th birthday http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9066371/Last-surviving-veteran-of-First-World-War-dies-aged-110.html
and it made me think about another veteran who managed to receive a bakers dozen of cards from The Queen – Mr Henry Allingham.
Henry Allingham served in the Royal Naval Air Services as an aircraft mechanic, and transferred over to the Royal Air Force on the day it was formed, 1st April 1918. He served in France, and by the time the Second World War began he was actually too old to have a fighting role, instead becoming involved with designing mine warfare counter-measures (I seem to remember him telling us something about tin-foil chaff!)
I was very fortunate to photograph and work with Henry in his later years, beginning when a memorial to British Air Services was built in the town of Saint Omer in Northern France. I was based at RAF Innsworth at the time as the main photographer for Personnel and Training Command and along with the MoD journalists I worked with, we were tasked to cover the story of the memorial being built and then unveiled in St Omer.
Our task initially began with travelling to Nottinghamshire to the foundry where they had cast the bronzes which were to be mounted onto the memorial. It was fascinating to see and photograph the original drawings and the final bronzes that would end up on the memorial when it was finally constructed in France. I also got to go over to France a few weeks prior to the unveiling, to photograph them finishing off the memorial, and take some air-to-ground photos of the aerodrome where it had been built.
Then Henry Allingham was invited to get involved, by being present at the memorial unveiling in France. At the time Henry was 108 years young, and still going strong, living on his own in his flat in Eastbourne, as he had been since his wife died back in the 1970’s (I think). Up to the later years of his life Henry had never been back to France since the war, and had never wanted to. Now though he felt that as he reckoned he didn’t have much longer left (at 108!!) he felt that he owed it to all those who were not able to return from France as he had done. In fact, Henry had never even got round to getting a passport, and the RAF helped him get one sorted out. I remember seeing the passport and finding it funny, as his date of birth was down as 6 Jun 96 – on a passport the year date is just two digits, no century digits, so it didn’t have 1896, his year of birth on it!
On the way out to France, Henry was given VIP treatment on the train – he was the oldest person to have travelled through the channel Tunnel at that point, so was given champagne to celebrate! The first evening we were there, a bunch of us took Henry out for dinner, where he sat for 2 hours and told us tales from years gone by – I can remember being impressed by how switched on and perky he was, I think I was flagging and in need of sleep before he was after our day of travelling!
Before the unveiling, Henry got an opportunity to see the memorial in private, and meet some of the Aircraft Technician trainees from RAF Cosford, that were to be involved in the ceremony. Henry had himself been an aircraft mechanic, so these trainees were following in his footsteps. They all queued up to meet him, and when he met one of the girls he asked “Are you in the RAF too?” When she replied “yes” he exclaimed with a cheeky chuckle “Oh, not in my day!”
There was also a practice display by the Great War Display Team http://www.greatwardisplayteam.co.uk/about.htm prior to the main event, which was fantastic to see, whilst stood right in the middle of the airfield with a team from Sky News, with all of us being dive-bombed by these fantastic old aircraft! We also had an opportunity to go up and take some air-to-air photos of the Great War Display Team, from a helicopter – I love jobs like that, open door helicopter stuff, lots of fun!
The unveiling itself went well, henry insisted on walking up to the memorial to lay his wreath, rather than being wheeled up, and he also insisted that Dennis, his helper, let him walk up alone, I find the photo that I took very poignant – Henry stood there as one of the last WW1 veterans, honouring those who were no longer around.
The following June I found myself at Henry’s 109th birthday celebrations in Eastbourne. There was a lovely meal in a hotel, followed by a more public celebration where a schoolboy who had been born exactly 100 years after Henry presented him with a big birthday card from the local school, and Henry received his 9th birthday card from The Queen, which he proudly brandished in the air!
After paying his respects alongside the other veterans at the Cenotaph for a couple of years, Henry passed away in 2009, having lived to 113 and briefly becoming the oldest man in the world – he put his longevity down to whisky – not massive amounts, just a tot of it every day J
It was an honour to have worked with and photographed Henry, he was a brilliant guy, and I’m glad he was able to use the last years of his life to raise awareness for all of those who had gone before. So to Henry, Harry Patch, Bill stone, Florence Green, and all those others who served our country in the Great War, and all conflicts since, we will always remember you – not just on November 11th, but all the time.