LONDON — The world's oldest man, 113-year-old World War I veteran Henry Allingham, died Saturday after spending his final years reminding Britain about the 9 million soldiers killed during the conflict.
Allingham was the last surviving original member of the Royal Air Force, which was formed in 1918. He made it a personal crusade to talk about a conflict that wiped out much of a generation. Though nearly blind, he would take the outstretched hands of visitors in both of his, gaze into the eyes of children, veterans and journalists and deliver a message he wanted them all to remember.
"I want everyone to know," he told The Associated Press during an interview in November. "They died for us."
Only a handful of World War I veterans remain of the estimated 68 million mobilized. There are no French veterans left alive; the last living American-born veteran is Frank Woodruff Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia.
"It's the end of a era — a very special and unique generation," said Allingham's longtime friend, Dennis Goodwin, who confirmed Allingham's death. "The British people owe them a great deal of gratitude."
Allingham takes off
Born June 6, 1896, Allingham left school at 15 and was working in a car factory in east London when war broke out in 1914.
He spent the war's first months refitting trucks for military use, but when his mother died in June 1915, he decided to join up after seeing a plane circling a reservoir in Essex, east of London.
"It was a captivating sight," he wrote in his memoir. "Fascinated, I sat down on the grass verge to watch the aircraft. I decided that was for me."
Only a dozen years after the Wright brothers first put up their plane, Allingham and other airmen set out from eastern England on motorized kites made with wood, linen and wire. They piled on clothes and smeared their faces in Vaseline, whale oil or engine grease to block the cold.
"To be honest, all the planes were so flimsy and unpredictable — as well as incapable of carrying large fuel loads — at the start of the war that both British and German pilots would immediately turn back rather than face each other in the skies if they did not enjoy height supremacy," Allingham would later write." "But I remember getting back on the ground and just itching to take off again."
As a mechanic, Allingham's job was to maintain the rickety craft. He also flew as an observer on a biplane. At first, his weaponry consisted of a standard issue Lee Enfield .303 rifle — sometimes two. Parachutes weren't issued.
He fought in the Battle of Jutland, the largest naval battle of World War I. He served on the Western Front, by now armed with a machine gun.
He was wounded in the arm by shrapnel during an attack on an aircraft depot, but survived.
'Kitchener's Last Volunteer'
After the war he worked at the Ford motor factory and raised two children with his wife, Dorothy. She died in 1970, and when his daughter Jean died in 2001, friends say he waited to die, too.
That's when he met Goodwin, a lay inspector for nursing homes, who realized that veterans of Allingham's generation were not getting the care they needed to address the trauma they had experienced at the Somme, Gallipoli and Ypres. Some veterans ached to return to the battle fields to pay their respects to their slain friends, and Goodwin found himself organizing trips to France.
He encouraged Allingham to share his experiences and the veteran soon began talking to reporters and school groups, the connection to a lost generation. He found himself leading military parades. He was made an Officer of France's Legion of Honor.
He met Queen Elizabeth II and wrote his autobiography with Goodwin, "Kitchener's Last Volunteer," a reference to Britain's Minister for War who rallied men to the cause. Prince Charles wrote the introduction.
He pleaded for peace
He grew accustomed to being one of the last ones standing. Last year, he joined Harry Patch, Britain's last soldier, and the late Bill Stone, its last sailor, in a ceremony at the Cenotaph war memorial near the houses of Parliament in London, to mark the 90th anniversary of the war's end.
Allingham remained outspoken until his death, pleading for peace and begging anyone who would listen to remember those who died.
"I think we need to make people aware that a few men gave all they had to give so that you could have a better world to live in," he said. "We have to pray it never happens again."
Goodwin says Allingham's funeral will take place in Brighton. He is survived by five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and one great-great-great grandchild.
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