It was Kierkegaard who observed that we can only understand life backwards, but can only live it forwards. In a way Harry Patch, the last British Army survivor of World War I, was the embodiment of this paradox. His 111 years were dominated and defined by just 4 months of his life, that took place 9 decades ago. For most of those decades he kept his memories and experiences to himself. Only recently, as he outlived not only his contemporaries but also the next generation (both of his children pre-deceased him) did he begin to talk, aware that he was one of the last links with an otherwise lost age. Simply by dint of being a survivor - continuing on and on seemingly unstoppably - his thoughts and feelings assumed more and more importance as he became a relic of an earlier age.
As usual the reporting of his funeral veered towards sloppy whenever the chance of a good headline demanded it; I saw a couple of reports describing Patch as 'the last World War I veteran'. He wasn't; Claude Choules, who served in the Navy and now lives in Australia, is the last British veteran, and there is an American aged 108 and a Canadian now 109. Poland's oldest man, Józef Kowalski, also 109, joined up after Armistice Day but before the Treaty of Versailles; thereby managing on a technicality to avoid being the fourth official last survivor. Harry Patch's momentous last was that he was the last to experience the trenches: the 'last Tommy' as a documentary not too long ago described him. Living through three centuries is unusual enough; later in life Patch narrowly avoided being struck by lightning and in World War II, past the age of conscription, faced more dangers as a fireman.
In the final analysis, he did not - and arguably could not - say anything much more profound than to state the belief that we must never forget. Yet, although this is not the day to say it, we will forget, and relatively quickly too. In 200 years' time, World War I will be to our descendants as the Napoleonic Wars seem to us - something you see pictures of people in funny clothes doing, distanced into the tapestry of the past, distilled into historical facts and figures. It won't be real, once the people who remember the people who were there are also dead. That's as unpalatable a truth as the fact that a quarter of a million men were killed at Passchendaele; but it is a truth, nonetheless.
Harry Patch's funeral took place today in Wells Cathedral. On the M4 this afternoon I saw a small white van with the logo 'Wells Cathedral Stonemasons' emblazoned across the back windows, beetling across the bridge. I overtook the van, not paying much attention to the purple sky and low clouds that backlit the Bristol Channel. At the time, I was in a hurry to get home. It was only as I reached Cardiff that I reflected that I'd been driving far too fast in the torrential rain, and should have slowed down.
Patch urged us not to forget, but the more pertinent issue is, have we learnt much? The easy answer, that we haven't, is not because we don't want to stop conflicts and prevent senseless catastrophes. It's because we can't understand life as we're living it; but only when we look back on it.