July 19, 2009

Henry Allingham at 113, R.I.P.

The oldest man in the world,  Air Mechanic Henry Allingham , British Veteran of World War I died on Saturday aged 113, in his sleep.

John Burns writes the most lyrical obit in the New York Times

An iconic figure to many in Britain, Mr. Allingham did wartime service including stints on land, in the air and at sea. In 1915, he flew as an observer and gunner in the Royal Naval Air Service, hunting zeppelins over the North Sea. He was aboard one of the Royal Navy ships that fought in the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in which Britain lost 14 ships and 6,000 seamen.

He transferred to the western front in France the following year, where he was a mechanic transferred by the naval air service to the Royal Flying Corps, again flying as an observer and a gunner in sorties over the battlefields of the Somme. In later life, he recalled his time in the Somme trenches as the most searing of all his wartime memories.

He described standing in water up to his armpits, surrounded by the smell of mud and rotting flesh. “I saw too many things I would like to forget, but I will never forget them, I can never forget them,” he said.
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Snowy-haired and bowed with age, Mr. Allingham carried a wreath of poppies on his lap at the remembrance ceremonies last November. Insisting he lay the wreath himself, he was wheeled forward to the plinth of the Cenotaph, the memorial to Britain’s war dead near Britain’s Defense Ministry, and was assisted by a military aide in placing the wreath.

 Allingham Wwi Vet

For many years, according to family members, he buried his wartime memories, avoiding reunions and refusing even to discuss his experiences with his family.

But as he grew older, he relented, at least as far as agreeing to appear and speak in public. Even then, he continued to resist all efforts to depict him as a hero. On a visit to the Somme in 2006, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. “I don’t,” he said. “I want to be forgotten. Remember the others.”
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London Telegraph

With a clear mind until his own death, Allingham could recall the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, the Wright brothers' first flight, and seeing WG Grace bat at the Oval in July 1903 – when he scored 15 and 19 in each innings.
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He would attribute his longevity to "cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women" then add that there had only been one woman for him – his beloved wife, who died in 1970.
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His experience of the trenches came was when he was looking to salvage spares from the remains of aircraft that had been shot down. "We were moving forward at night," he would recall. "I was very apprehensive. It was dark. One of those nights you got where the night time seems to surround you. There were booby traps everywhere."

Suddenly his foothold gave way: "I fell into a shell hole. It was full of arms, legs, ears, dead rats – a lot of dead, rotten flesh. I was up to my armpits in water. I can't describe the smell of flesh and mud mixed up together. I turned to my left, and that's what saved me. It got shallower to the left, and I was able to lift myself out of the water. I lay there in the dark, not daring to move, cold and with my uniform stinking. I was frightened. I was scared. I was so relieved when it finally got light and I could move."

Despite such a gruesome experience, Allingham counted himself fortunate: "I think I had an angel hanging over my shoulders. I still do, I hope."

Posted by Jill Fallon at July 19, 2009 10:38 PM | Permalink