Veteran, gentleman and teenager twice, Henry Allingham laid to rest
Thursday 30 July 2009
A bugler sounded the last post, the coffin was draped in a union flag, and respectful crowds burst into spontaneous applause, but the funeral of Henry Allingham was far more than a military honour for the oldest survivor of the first world war.
Last Post, a work by the poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, commemorated the experiences of Allingham and his contemporaries in the trenches of France. But the family, friends, servicemen and women and ordinary people today gathered to celebrate all the things Allingham was in his 113 years: the world's oldest man, witness to three centuries, East Ender, founder member of the Royal Air Force, mechanic, last survivor of the Battle of Jutland, teenager twice over, Officier, Légion d'Honneur, gentleman, joker, "Grandpa England", and father.
For Betty Hankin, the service at St Nicholas church, Brighton, marked the end of 40 years of estrangement from her father and his family.
Allingham's eldest and only surviving daughter had so little communication with her father following the death of Allingham's wife, Dorothy, that Allingham told friends he assumed his daughter was dead. Members of Hankin's family did not know of the connection until after his death.
Hankin, 89, was visibly moved by the crowd of 1,000 people gathered outside, and Allingham's good friend Dennis Goodwin said Hankin was "a little bit overwhelmed" by the family reunion. Goodwin, founder of the First World War Veterans' Association, believed Allingham "knew all along" that his daughter was still alive. "His family have re-emerged and I think [the funeral] will probably strengthen the bond of Henry's family," he said.
As families sat on union flags like picnickers in the churchyard, Allingham's friend, Air Vice Marshal Peter Dye, gave a touching address to 200 mourners inside. He recalled Allingham aged 110 doing the conga around a dance floor in France in his wheelchair. "When his slippers flew off at a particularly tight corner I was struck – not literally – by how much he enjoyed living," he said. He remembered a trip to the House of Lords when the ever-gallant veteran surprised Black Rod's secretary by asking for her telephone number.
For eight decades after the first world war, Allingham would not discuss the horrors he witnessed as a mechanic during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, in which 6,000 British seamen lost their lives, and a year later at Passchendaele, which claimed 70,000 lives. Instead, he worked for Ford motor company and lived with Dorothy, Betty and Jean, his younger daughter who married a GI and moved to America.
After years living alone and unheralded in Eastbourne, Allingham was befriended by Goodwin and finally encouraged to share his experiences of war. He relished a final decade in which he laid memorial wreaths in France, had an emotional meeting with a 108-year-old German counterpart, and told school children of the sacrifices of his generation and the futility of war.
"He breathed life into our heritage and reminded us of those who had gone before," said Vice Admiral Sir Adrian Johns.
For his friends at St Dunstan's, the care home for blind ex-service personnel where he spent his final years and passed away on 18 July, the service was "so Henry".
"He was a very special man. He was a true gentleman, and he was a gentle man," said Lynn Allen, one of his carers.
Allingham's American grandson, David Gray, spoke of the generosity and modesty of "Grandpa England".
Gray recalled waiting for his grandpa to be brought in a wheelchair through Miami airport only to see him pushing a younger member of the airline staff. "That was classic Henry, always a twinkle in his eye and always ready to pull your leg."
"Henry was generous in so many ways. He constantly deflected discussion about himself to others," Gray remembered. And, as two church bells tolled 113 times and the crowd applauded again, Allingham's coffin was driven slowly away. Guardian News