Lest we forget lessons of history

11th April 2003 at 01:00
First World War veterans recounting their wartime experiences held pupils enthralled. Adi Bloom reports

WHEN Harry Patch was 18 years old, he had a piece of shrapnel removed from his leg without anaesthetic. When Ross Kemp reaches 18, he plans to study history and languages at university.

Ross and 104-year-old Harry compared experiences this week when the 15-year-old, along with classmates from Tring School in Hertfordshire, attended the final reunion of Great War veterans.

"It puts it in perspective," said Ross. "People say x, y and * died during the war. But to meet someone who was there makes it real."

The pupils listened as Mr Patch, together with fellow veteran William Stone, a spry 102-year-old, recounted wartime experiences at the reunion at the National Archives in west London. Their memories were all the more poignant because of the war in Iraq.

"It was lousy in the trenches: filthy and unsanitary," said Mr Patch, a former army private. "You never forget the expressions on people's faces when they went over the top. I don't think today's teenagers realise what war is."

Mr Stone, weighed down by two rows of medals, served in both the first and second world wars. He complimented 15-year-old Carly Sullivan on her haircut and mentioned that he served as ship's barber during his 27 years in the Navy. Among his clients was General Franco, who paid him for his services with two bottles of beer.

"I thought it would be boring, listening to old men," said Carly. "But now I'm so glad I came."

Their conversation was observed by Prince Charles, who attended the event briefly. But Catherine Hammond, education manager for the Archives, believes that it is their new understanding of history, rather than the royal visit, that will have a lasting impression on pupils.

She said: "Understanding individual experience helps students to see that their own lives can be important in history."

The Tring pupils agreed there were lessons for their generation to learn from those who have gone before, particularly during the present Middle East crisis.

"First World War soldiers didn't know what they were going into," said Ross. "But we study history. We should be able to learn from their mistakes."

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