Soldiering on at 110: Belgium honours veteran of western front

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When a man has so many medals that they already fill his chest, another may not mean so much. But Harry Patch, the last known surviving British soldier of the 3 million who served on the western front during the first world war, yesterday graciously accepted one more, the knighthood of the Order of Leopold, as Belgium's tribute for his services and those of all his dead colleagues.

Patch, who has just passed his 110th birthday, served with the 7th Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry until he was wounded in the trenches in front of Ypres in the summer of 1917 during the early phases of the battle of Passchendaele. Ninety-one years on, he sat passively in a wheelchair as Jean-Michel Veranneman de Watervliet, the Belgian ambassador to London, made the presentation in a reception room at the ambassador's residence in London.

If he seemed bemused, it may have been at the thought that it is his longevity that has brought celebrity and the Légion d'honneur from France, interviews, an autobiography and television crews beating a path to his nursing home in Somerset. When he was demobbed in 1919, Patch went back to his job as a plumber and did not speak about his war experiences for 80 years.

His silence yesterday may also have been due to the fact that September 22 is usually sombre - the anniversary of the day in 1917 when three other members of his Lewis gun crew were blown to pieces as they moved back from the frontline and Patch's stomach was ripped open by a piece of flying shrapnel. By such accidents of fate did some men die in their teens while their comrade is now Britain's second oldest man.

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