Only death could silence Henry Allingham.
He went to war as a teenager, helped keep flimsy aircraft
flying, survived his wounds and came home from World War I to a
long - very long - and fruitful life.
But only in his last years did he discover his true mission: to
remind new generations of the sacrifices of the millions
slaughtered in the trenches, killed in the air, or lost at sea in
what Britons call the Great War.
Allingham, who was the world's oldest man when he died Saturday
at 113, attributed his remarkable longevity to "cigarettes, whisky
and wild, wild women."
Jokes aside, he was a modest man who served as Britain's
conscience, reminding young people time and time again about the
true cost of war.
"I want everyone to know," he told The Associated Press during
an interview in November. "They died for us."
He was the last surviving original member of the Royal Air
Force, which was formed in 1918. He made it a personal crusade to
talk about a conflict that wiped out much of a generation. Though
nearly blind, he would take the outstretched hands of visitors in
both of his, gaze into the eyes of children, veterans and
journalists and deliver a message he wanted them all to remember
about those left on the battlefield.
"I don't want to see them forgotten," he would say quietly.
"We were pals."
Only a handful of World War I veterans remain of the estimated
68 million mobilized. There are no French veterans left alive; just
one left now in Britain; and the last living American-born veteran
is Frank Woodruff Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia. The man
believed to have been Germany's last surviving soldier has also
"It's the end of a era- a very special and unique generation,"
said Allingham's friend, Dennis Goodwin. "The British people owe
them a great deal of gratitude."
Born June 6, 1896, during the reign of Queen Victoria, Allingham
would later recall sitting on his grandfather's shoulders waving a
flag for King Edward VII's coronation in 1902. Transportation was
horse drawn, coal was the primary fuel, street lighting was gas and
in the financial heart of London, there was same-day mail delivery.
But the world was changing fast. In 1903, Wilbur and Orville
Wright flew an airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and in 1913,
Henry Ford began making Model Ts on an assembly line in Michigan.
Allingham left school at 15 and was working in a car factory in
east London when war broke out in 1914.
He spent the war's first months refitting trucks for military
use, but when his mother died in June 1915, he decided to join up
after seeing a plane circling a reservoir in Essex, east of London.
"It was a captivating sight," he wrote in his memoir.
"Fascinated, I sat down on the grass verge to watch the aircraft.
I decided that was for me."
That chance encounter with an early flying machine was to change
It was only a dozen years after the Wright brothers first put up
their plane, and Britain's air resources were primitive. Allingham
and other valiant airmen set out from eastern England on motorized
kites made with wood, linen and wire. They piled on clothes and
smeared their faces in Vaseline, whale oil or engine grease to try
to block the cold.
"To be honest, all the planes were so flimsy and unpredictable
- as well as incapable of carrying large fuel loads - at the start
of the war that both British and German pilots would immediately
turn back rather than face each other in the skies if they did not
enjoy height supremacy," Allingham would later write. "But I
remember getting back on the ground and just itching to take off
As a mechanic, Allingham's job was to maintain the rickety
craft. He also flew as an observer on a biplane. At first, his
weaponry consisted of a standard issue Lee Enfield .303 rifle -
sometimes two. Parachutes weren't issued.
He fought in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of
World War I. He served on the Western Front, by now armed with a
machine gun. He was wounded in the arm by shrapnel during an attack
on an aircraft depot, but survived.
After the war he worked at the Ford motor factory and raised two
children with his wife, Dorothy. She died in 1970, and when his
daughter Jean died in 2001, friends say he waited to die, too. His
will to live was waning; his life seemed without a larger purpose.
That's about the time he met Goodwin, a nursing home inspector
who realized that veterans of Allingham's generation were not
getting the care they needed to address the trauma they had
experienced at the Somme, Gallipoli and Ypres and the other
blood-drenched World War I battlefields. Some veterans ached to
return to the battlefields to pay their respects to their slain
friends, and Goodwin found himself organizing trips to France for
He encouraged Allingham to share his experiences and the
veteran, even though he had passed the century mark, started
talking to reporters and school groups, providing the connection to
a lost generation some had forgotten. He found himself leading
military parades. He was made an Officer of France's Legion of
Honor and received other honors.
He met Queen Elizabeth II and wrote his autobiography with help
from Goodwin. It was called "Kitchener's Last Volunteer," a
reference to Britain's Minister for War who rallied men to the
cause. Prince Charles wrote the introduction.
He grew accustomed to being one of the last ones standing. Last
year, he joined Harry Patch, Britain's last surviving World War I
soldier, and the late Bill Stone, the country's last sailor, in a
ceremony at the Cenotaph war memorial near the houses of Parliament
in London, to mark the 90th anniversary of the war's end at the
11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
As the wreaths were being laid, Allingham pushed himself up out
of his wheelchair to place his arrangement at the base of the
memorial - refusing the help of an officer deployed at his side. He
leaned forward and placed the red poppy wreath beside the others.
Allingham remained outspoken until his death, pleading for peace
and begging anyone who would listen to remember those who died.
"I think we need to make people aware that a few men gave all
they had to give so that you could have a better world to live
in," he said. "We have to pray it never happens again."
Goodwin said Allingham's funeral will take place in Brighton. He
is survived by five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14
great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild.
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