Most people with an interest in the Great War will probably have heard of Henry Allingham, the second-last British serviceman of the war to die (by which point he was also the world’s oldest man). He was the last surviving Londoner to have seen active service in the war. This blog post gives a brief overview of his service and some thoughts about him as wartime civilian, sailor, solider and airman and as a celebrity veteran.
Henry Allingham was an 18-year-old mechanic living in Bethnal Green when war was declared in August 1914. He describes an early attempt to enlist as a despatch rider (he owned his own motorbike) in 1914, but he was not accepted and his mother asked him not to volunteer again. He stayed with her at their house until her death in June 1915, then he joined the Royal Naval Air Service in September.
After this, Allingham’s war service took in all of Britain’s three armed forces and two of the most famous battles in the Great War. He served in the RNAS and went to see on HMT Kingfisher, from which he watched (although did not take direct part in) the battle of Jutland – the big naval battle of the war, which essentially ended in a score draw but saw the German navy’s surface fleet pinned back in their ports for the remainder of the war. He then moved over the Royal Flying Corps – the RNAS’s army sibling – and served in the army through the Third Ypres (AKA Passchendaele). In April 1918, the RNAS and RFC were merged into an independent Royal Air Force, completing the set of three services for the young mechanic from London. He was discharged in March 1919, returning returned to London and his new wife Dorothy, whom he had married in 1918. He died in July 2009.
There are a few things that make Henry’s story interesting. These are just a few of them:
- Henry was not swayed by the recruiting campaigns of October 1914-summer 1915 – nor was his mother. This was the hey-day of the recruiting poster (think ‘What did you do in the great war, Daddy’ and ‘Women of Britain, say – GO!’ – these were some of the more memorable, if not the most used, posters of the period) and the recruitment rally. Henry felt a duty to stay with his mother in her final months. Only after she had died was he free of his familial duty and able to go and serve his King and Country. He was not the only one. Adverse family circumstances were among the reasons that men later could, and did, appeal against being called up as conscripts.
- If you want a symbol of the war effort, Henry is an excellent one. He worked for Scammell modifying trucks for army service, served in the two existing armed forces in 1915-1918, and was in the RAF from its formation in April 1918.
- He was among the last of the servicemen survivors, but his fame came only through his being one of these survivors. In many ways his life was unremarkable. He served in the war, but it was not the defining fact of his life. In this way, he and the other final survivors (such as Harry Patch) are different from those whose war stories formed part of their fame from an earlier age, such as Siegfried Sassoon. The best example of these among those who lived to a great age was Cecil Lewis (1898-1997) because he wrote about his war story (in the excellent Sagittarius Rising) and also outlived most of his contemporaries. His generation of famous warriors was eventually superseded by those for whom the war was simply a part of their life until the very end when they were the last surviving witnesses. Now that generation has gone completely. I think it is interesting to see how we viewed their memories as this war generation grew old and died out: from the (largely) elite-written interwar novels and memoirs to the 1960s use of oral history, through to fascinated popular attention paid to the last of the many.
Henry Allingham – Kitchener’s Last Volunteer
Dan Todman – The Great War: myth and memory (which discusses memory and the war)
Cecil Lewis – Sagittarius Rising