This past Sunday was Remembrance Day in the UK – marked by the current crop of politicians lining up, laying wreaths, looking sombre. Meanwhile the day is fundamentally about the fallen soldiers and survivors of wars past (the everyday people that earlier crops of politicians and royals sent to fight, kill and die on their behalf). I was fortunate to have spent an evening in the presence of one of them, Henry Allingham…
In 2006 Allingham was one of very few living survivors of WWI and widely known, feted, loved. On one cold November night the centenarian was attending an event at The Imperial War Museum, Lambeth, London. He was ‘guest of honour’ – one of the few occasions, perhaps the only one I can recall, when that billing was credible, legitimate, authentic.
I stood right next to the chair-bound Allingham for about an hour, as guests mingled and guzzled free drinks. The centenarian’s vim and vigour did not seem to dwindle as people would come up to him and bend towards him and shout to him above the buzz. For me it was honour enough to connect eyes with the great man, to smile and to nod.
There was another guest of note at the event. The celebrity tie-in was Hollywood A-lister Kevin Spacey – then the Director of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. When Mr Spacey made his entrance there were many heads turned, a brief hush, audible whispers. Doubtless the actor was duty bound to attend the event and satisfy several sponsors. Yet it sparked a mildly ridiculous scenario whereby one human stood still, perhaps looking for a friendly face, a free drink, some funny convo, and thereby (in doing nothing) commanded a full room of quivering adults, eyes ablaze, mouths agog.
My glancing survey of this scene soon returned to gazing, as nonchalantly as possible, at Henry Allingham. The old man sat in his chair, looking blissfully unaware of the Hollywood star’s presence. Of course, Allingham was equally unaware of the fact that he was the only person with true presence in the room.
In various archived interviews of Allingham, he confessed to not knowing what war was when he joined up to serve. Another widely reported veteran, Harry Patch, who briefly outlived Allingham, often suggested that it was the politicians and leaders who should have fought the wars…
Allingham soon found out about war through hideous endurance, obscene events, unforgettable experiences. He admitted to having breakdowns during and after the war, and revealed that he largely held his pain inside until 2005 when he returned to France, where he had fought some 90 years before. On that occasion Allingham unveiled a memorial honouring the names of his fallen fellows. By 2009 he was awarded France’s highest official decoration: the Legion d’Honneur. Later that year Allingham died having had a brief spell of imposed notoriety as the world’s oldest living person, aged 113.
What a character. What a long and intriguing life story. Some of it has been widely told – and, sometimes, the reports included his core message of peace. It is clear that Mr Allingham spent the vast majority of his many decades on the planet as an advocate for peace. His message is my remembrance of the man. That, and his presence during one night in London back in 2006.
Today there are no living survivors who fought in World War I. Yet what ought to live on and be shared is the frank wisdom held within their recorded words…
“War’s stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first; you have to talk last anyway.”
— Henry Allingham (1896 – 2009)