The first modern Olympics were hosted by Athens, Puccini’s La Bohème premiered in Turin and Queen Victoria became the longest reigning monarch in British history. The year was 1896 and in a corner of north-east London an ironmonger’s wife gave birth to a boy, Henry.
One hundred and twelve years later, Henry William Allingham is in rude health as the oldest man in Europe. On Friday the First World War veteran will celebrate his birthday by watching a fly-past of vintage aircraft, including a Hurricane and a Spitfire.
On the same day George Francis, the oldest living American male, will also turn 112. It is thought the only man in the world who is older is Tomoji Tanabe of Japan, who turns 113 in September. He says that abstaining from alcohol has kept him healthy. Allingham, with a twinkle in his eye, has always attributed his own longevity to ‘cigarettes, whisky and wild, wild women’.
He was involved in the greatest naval clash of the First World War, the Battle of Jutland, and in 1917 was posted to France to service and rescue aircraft that crashed behind the trenches at Ypres and the Somme. He fell into a shell hole ‘full of legs, arms, ears, rotten flesh and rats’ in no man’s land and has never forgotten the stench of death.
Allingham attends remembrance events at home and abroad, gives interviews to the media, visits schools to talk to children at least 100 years his junior and has just completed an autobiography, to be published in October.
On his birthday, Allingham will be the guest of honour at a VIP lunch at RAF College Cranwell, near Sleaford, Lincolnshire. The sole surviving founder member of the RAF will witness a fly-past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and a parachute jump by the RAF Falcons display team. Forty Cranwell Primary School pupils will present him with a birthday cake. The great-great-great-grandfather will also be joined by eight family members from America.
Yet for more than 80 years Allingham never spoke about the war. He was finally persuaded by Dennis Goodwin who, as founder of the First World War Veterans’ Association, organised reunions and trips for old soldiers. ‘He’d answer the door and not let me in,’ recalled Goodwin, his carer and the ghost writer of his memoirs. ‘He’d say, “I want to forget the war, I don’t want to talk about it.” But I sent him letters about the reunions and gradually he let me in and we got talking. Eventually I got him out of his flat in Eastbourne and took him to the pier. He met other veterans and started to think, “I could do this.” It was a very slow process – he’s essentially a very private man.’
Goodwin, 81, added: ‘We’re going to Trooping the Colour on 14 June. Henry said, “I remember my mum took me there when I was seven. I don’t know how she got a front-row seat.” That would have been 1903. If you were looking for a role model, not many people would say Henry Allingham, but the mere fact he’s got to 112 and is still enjoying life is itself unique.’
Allingham remains in good health and lives at St Dunstan’s home for blind veterans in Brighton. Max Arthur, author of the First World War oral history Last Post, said: ‘He’s a very dignified, very gentle man. He was so surprised to survive the First World War that he saw whatever came next as a reward. He made the most of his life. It does exemplify in my mind that, whatever age you are, never give up, and when in doubt, sing, which is what he still does. Sheer defiance is the reason he keeps going.’
The diary for Allingham’s 113th year is already filling up. In November he will attend a service at the Cenotaph in London to mark the 90th anniversary of Armistice Day, along with the two other surviving First World War veterans, Harry Patch, 109, and 107-year-old Bill Stone.
Allingham said: ‘I’m not the kid I used to be, but I still get around. You make your own happiness, whatever age you are. Seeing the funny side of life is useful, and I’ve always had a sense of humour. People ask me, what’s the secret of a long life? I don’t know.’ –guardUK