The passing of Walter Cronkite yesterday at the age of 92 was followed by many comments, online, in print, and on the airwaves, that it marked the end of an era. This morning, news came of the death of a man who survived Cronkite by a few hours, yet was old enough to be the newscaster’s father – 113-year-old Henry Allingham, the last founding member of the Royal Air Force, witness to the Battle of Jutland in 1916, and, until he joined his fallen comrades from over nine decades ago, one of just five veterans of World War I still with us. When the last of them goes, a period in human history can truly be said to have reached its conclusion. (The four others yet living are Harry Patch of Britain; 108-year-old Frank Buckles, the last American veteran; Claude Choules of Australia, the last sailor from the war; and Canada’s John Babcock, who served prior to Armistice Day but did not see combat.)
Until Allingham reached the age of 105, he was disinclined to talk about his experiences. But in 2001 Denis Goodwin of the World War I Veterans Association located him and persuaded the centenarian that the story he had to tell was one that people should hear. And so, for the last eight years of his life, Allingham spoke before many audiences of students and the public, describing the heroism and horror he had seen, and exhorting his listeners not to forget the sacrifice of his fellow servicemen. Often he would speak of the scenes he witnessed at the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917, in which 560,000 men perished in less than four months:
“They would just stand there in 2ft of water in mud-filled trenches, waiting to go forward. They knew what was coming. It was pathetic to see those men like that. I don’t think they have ever got the admiration and respect they deserved.”
In fact I’ve often wondered at the way in which World War I has faded from the American consciousness. In 1986 when I was living in Lexington, Kentucky, I used to drive past a charming subdivision named Belleau Wood. This was, of course, the name of the bloody battle fought by the U.S. Marine Corps in France in 1918. But no one seemed to take notice of that. At that point, the battle was 68 years in the past. Tarawa and Bastogne are now almost as distant but I don’t think there are too many developers who would feel comfortable naming neighborhoods after them.