Great War foes embrace as friends
Sunday October 29, 2006
Britain's and Germany's oldest veterans meet for the first time, 90 years after they served on the Western Front
Henry Allingham, Britain's oldest First World War veteran, and Robert Meier, who is Germany's equivalent, braved driving rain to attend what must have been one of the most informal, and moving, of all memorial services. With a combined age of 219, these two men know better than anyone the meaning of remembrance.
Allingham, making his first trip to Germany since he served in the army of occupation after the Great War, was in Meier's home town, Witten, near Dortmund, for the special meeting ahead of next month's Armistice anniversary. The men speak different languages but communicated with perfect eloquence through their actions, clasping each other's hands and hugging warmly.
Allingham, 110, proudly wearing his war medals, said: 'I'm very happy to be here and remember how good the German people were to me when I was last here in 1919.'
Meier, 109, sporting a flamboyant black beret, added: 'It's wonderful to be together. Everybody has to be friends.' Together the centenarians, dressed smartly in suits, ignored a downpour as they were wheeled side by side to a tall, brick war memorial in the town's Lutherpark. With a monumental effort, aided by RAF men in uniform, Allingham struggled to his feet and laid a wreath of poppies at its foot.
Then the two men - who were foes in the same sector of the Western Front in 1917 - shook hands and, with unexpected tenderness, could not let one another go. For long minutes their hands remained as if welded together. Allingham glanced across at his new friend, then burst into a mischievous chuckle.
There were short speeches from Witten's mayor and from the RAF's deputy commander-in-chief, Peter Dye, who said: 'It's very special that these two men are here in the spirit of friendship and peace. May their example be something we think about and reflect upon.' Then the duo were wheeled up the memorial to place the second wreath together. Dennis Goodwin, a friend who brought Allingham to Germany, exclaimed: 'Good cooperation! Bravo!' Goodwin said later: 'They say that words are a barrier but they did it all with looks and touch. They were both very happy.'
Both men have found it easier to talk about the war, and take part in public commemorations, as they have grown older. They also share a sense of humour. Allingham attributes his longevity to 'Cigarettes, whisky, and wild, wild women.' Meier puts his down to 'sport, a healthy diet, especially plenty of fish ... and the odd glass of schnapps', as well as his enduring popularity with women. He recently proposed marriage to the town mayor and a local journalist. Both declined.
Allingham and Meier are the oldest men in their respective countries. Allingham remembers watching WG Grace play cricket. Meier remembers meeting the Kaiser during the First World War. Both are fighting fit for their age. Goodwin joked: 'I said Allingham can go three rounds if you like.' He added that there had been a plan to make yesterday a three-way meeting with France's oldest veteran, but he was too frail to travel.