Henry Allingham, British Veteran of World War I, Dies at 113

July 23, 2009

By: JOHN F. BURNS

LONDON — Henry Allingham, one of Britain’s last three surviving veterans of World War I, died on Saturday at a nursing home in the south coast town of Brighton, staff at the home said. Age 113, he was officially recognized as Britain’s oldest man.

Leon Neal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Henry Allingham last year.
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.

As Britain’s World War I veterans have dwindled, the survivors have become celebrities, appearing at remembrance day ceremonies in London’s Whitehall each year. Mr. Allingham was there in a wheelchair last year. Nearly a million soldiers, sailors, airmen and merchant seamen from Britain and its colonies died in World War I, about double the number who died in World War II.

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.

In March, at one of his last public appearances, he went to the French Embassy in London, where he was made an officer of the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, an award made on the personal initiative of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France.

Mr. Allingham’s death leaves only two British World War I veterans still living: Henry Patch, who is 111, and Claude Choules, 108.

Some British newspapers described Mr. Allingham in their obituaries as the world’s oldest man, without saying how they reached that conclusion. In any case, the fact that he outlived his wartime experiences by more than 90 years made him a national figure, though always a reluctant one. 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.”

In a country where many families lost relatives in World War I, Mr. Allingham had come to represent a link to an age when Britain, with an empire that straddled all the continents, generated legends of courage and self-sacrifice — as well as chapters distinctly more inglorious — that are deeply woven into the public consciousness.

Mr. Allingham was born in London in 1896. He lost his father to tuberculosis the next year. After his mother also died, he was raised by a grandmother. He became a trainee maker of surgical instruments before moving into the motor trade, training as a mechanic. After his wartime service, he worked until retirement for the Ford Motor Company. Judged to be too old to serve in combat in World War II, he was assigned to a project that sought to neutralize German magnetic mines.

His wife, Dorothy, died in 1970. He is survived by five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild, according to news agencies.

His death was marked by a flurry of eulogies. Queen Elizabeth II said in a statement that Mr. Allingham was “one of the generation who sacrificed so much for us all.” Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he had met Mr. Allingham a number of times. “He was a tremendous character, the last in a generation of tremendous characters,” Mr. Brown said.

At a packed Lord’s cricket ground in London, where England was playing Australia on Saturday in the most historic contest in cricket, 15,000 spectators stood for a minute’s silence in Mr. Allingham’s memory before play began. As the silen

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