Historians at work: The last known Brit who fought in the trenches of World War I

July 29, 2007

Richard van Emden is not a well known historian in the U.S., but perhaps he should be better known (he is also a television producer). This is exactly the sort of work that we need more historians doing:

Van Emden is interviewing Harry Patch of Somerset, England. Patch is 109 years old, and is the last known surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches in Belgium for the Allies in World War I.

Harry Patch and Richard van Emden, in BelgiumHarry Patch, foreground, and Richard van Emden visit the site of the World War I Battle of Passchendaele, near Flanders, Belgium.

250,000 British soldiers died in the battle.

The 109-year-old fought in the Battle of Passchendaele when he was aged 19.

He served with the Duke of Cornwall’s light infantry and was called up for service while working as an 18-year-old apprentice plumber in Bath.

During the fighting, Mr Patch was badly wounded and three of his best friends were killed when a shell exploded just yards from where he was standing.

He made the trip with historian Richard van Emden, who helped Mr Patch write down his memories.

Mr van Emden showed him the five miles they advanced over 99 days which claimed 3,000 British casualties every day.

He was also shown a recently discovered panoramic photograph of the fields taken in 1917.

“Too many died,” said Mr Patch. “War isn’t worth one life.”

Interviews with participants in history, with the eyewitnesses, provide a good training ground for future historians. The interviews generally provide great value, even when done by amateurs, such as high school students.

Teachers, how many veterans of how many wars live in your town? How many of them have been asked to tell about their experiences?


Leo Rosten on Adam Smith

July 29, 2007

Leo Rosten writes clearly, concisely, and often with great humor. Consequently, his essays make good fodder for classroom use.

British bank note featuring Adam Smith

Rosten is probably most famous for the introduction he once gave to the comedian W. C. Fields, a spur-of-the-moment bon mots that so exactly described Fields comedian persona that it is often listed as a line Fields himself wrote: “Any man who hates dogs and children can’t be all bad.”

That story also tells us that Rosten looks at Adam Smith coolly, through no rose-colored glass.

The Adam Smith Institute carries Rosten’s essay on Smith in its entirety. Go read it:

It is a clumsy, sprawling, elephantine book. The facts are suffocating, the digressions interminable, the pace as maddening as the title is uninviting: An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. But it is one of the towering achievements of the human mind: a masterwork of observation and analysis, of ingenious correlations, inspired theorizings, and the most persistent and powerful cerebration. Delightful ironies break through its stodgy surface:

“The late resolution of the Quakers [to free] their Negro slaves may satisfy us that their number cannot be very great …”

“The chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches.”

“To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising customers [is] unfit for a nation of shopkeepers, but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

So comprehensive is its range, so perceptive its probings, that it can dance, within one conceptual scheme, from the diamond mines of Golconda to the price of Chinese silver in Peru; from the fisheries of Holland to the plight of Irish prostitutes in London. It links a thousand apparently unrelated oddities into unexpected chains of consequence. And the brilliance of its intelligence “lights up the mosaic of detail,” says Schumpeter, “heating the facts until they glow.” Sometimes.

Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776 – not as a textbook, but as a polemical cannon aimed at governments that were subsidizing and protecting their merchants, their farmers, their manufacturers, against “unfair” competition, at home or from imports. Smith set out to demolish the mercantilist theory from which those politics flowed. He challenged the powerful interests who were profiting from unfree markets, collusive prices, tariffs and subsidies, and obsolete ways of producing things.

[More at the site of the Adam Smith Institute, including the continuation of this essay.]

Leo Rosten, publicity shot

Leo Rosten


88-year-old man finally gets Eagle Scout rank

July 29, 2007

Joining the elite, top 5% of all Boy Scouts, Walter Hart was awarded his Eagle rank in a ceremony Saturday in Fort Myers, Florida. Walter is 88.

There was a 70+ year delay in Walter’s ceremony — he passed the requirements for the rank, but then went off to fight in World War II before the award was made.

The Associated Press story ran in the New York Times:

”I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time,” said Hart, who lives in a retirement center in nearby Lehigh Acres.

Scout officials say he may be the oldest person to ever earn the honor.

Hart joined the Cub Scouts in 1928 in Malden, Mass., and earned 23 merit badges during his years as a Boy Scout, scouting officials said. Of the 120 merit badges available, 21 must be earned to qualify for Eagle Scout rank.

It all got set aside when he joined the Navy during World War II and served two years aboard the USS Alfred A. Cunningham.

Last year, he rediscovered some of his old Boy Scout memorabilia, including documents that showed he completed the requirements for his Eagle Scout rank. He contacted the Scouts about receiving his award.

”I think this was something that was always on his mind, but every time he went to go do it, something else came up,” daughter Elizabeth Gatturna said. ”I know how hard he’s tried to get to this point.”

Congratulations, Walter.

Walter Hart, 88, rec'd Eagle Badge 7-28-2007

  • Walter Hart, 88, is shown wearing a 2007 Boy Scout uniform with the merit badge sash he used as a youth, prior to World War II. Apart from the not-quite fit, we can tell the sash is his old one because many of the merit badges are in their pre-World War II designs, and the sash shows rank badges for Star Scout and Life Scout; current uniform rules do not allow rank badges on the sash. Under Scout rules, Walter may wear this sash for his Scouting career. Associated Press photo.

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