By DAVID BLACKMORE
Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Florence Green, the world’s last surviving first world war veteran died at the weekend, closing the book on the war to end all wars almost 100 years after it began.
She passed away in her sleep at a care home in King’s Lynn just two weeks before her 111th birthday.
The great-grandmother was only 17-years-old when she joined the Women’s Royal Air Force in the late summer of 1918.
Come the 11th day of the 11th month, she was working as a waitress at RAF Marham, when the pilots greeted news of the German surrender by clambering into their planes and bombing nearby RAF Narborough airfield with bags of flour.
Last year, she became the last surviving person to have seen active service in the first world war following the death of British-born sailor Claude Choules in Australia last year.
Mrs Green, who was born in London, lived with her daughter May, 90, in King’s Lynn, but had moved into nearby Briar House care home shortly before Christmas where she died on Saturday.
Mrs Green spent her war days working “all hours” serving officers breakfast, lunch and dinner and would often spend time wandering the base simply “admiring the pilots”.
Before her death she said: “I enjoyed my time in the WRAF. There were plenty of people at the airfields where I worked and they were all very good company.
“I would work every hour God sent but I had dozens of friends on the base and we had a great deal of fun in our spare time. In many ways I had the time of my life.
“I met dozens of pilots and would go on dates. I had the opportunity to go up in one of the planes but I was scared of flying. It was a lovely experience and I’m very proud.”
She married her husband Walter – a porter at King’s Lynn station – two years after the war. They had three children together, Mr Green passed away in 1970.
As well as her daughter May, she also leaves behind her youngest daughter, June Evetts, 76, who lives in Oundle, near Peterborough and a son, Bob, 86, who lives in Edinburgh. She is also survived by four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Mrs Evetts said: “She led an amazing and extraordinary life. She must have seen a lot of changes in her time.
“I never heard anyone say a bad word about her. She would never blow her own trumpet and certainly wouldn’t shout about the fact she was the last veteran.
She was, however, very proud of what she did and we are all very proud of her.”
She added: “She was the perfect mum. She didn’t have an easy life but she was always very good to us.
“Her death does close the book on the first world war as there are no veterans left now.”
Mrs Green was only identified as a surviving war veteran in 2008, when a researcher of gerontology found her service record, listed under her maiden name, Patterson, at the National Archives.
Though she never saw the front line, her service in the WRAF qualifies her for veteran status.
For her 110th birthday, top brass at RAF Marham sent Mrs Green a cake, featuring Marham’s bull emblem, which was delivered by Flt Lt Tim Serrell-Cooke.
RAF Squadron Leader Paula Willmot said: “We kept in contact with her and visited her just before Christmas to give her a Christmas cake, which she was delighted with.
“We were due to visit her on Friday to celebrate her 111th birthday. It is a very sad occasion, but what an amazing woman.
“We have very good memories of her. We will be supporting the family at the funeral. We are sending a number of our stewards as a tribute to her.”
Fewer than one in 1,000 of those who live to be 100 reach the age of 110. Asked how it felt, Mrs Green last year said: “Not much different to being 109.”
The WRAF in which Mrs Green served was founded only months before she joined up. Its original intent was to provide female mechanics in order to free up men for service.
But the organisation saw huge enrolment, with women volunteering for positions as drivers and mechanics and filling other wartime needs.
“Because the war was a manpower-intensive beast and lots of the young men ended up in France or Egypt fighting the dastardly Hun, as they were called at the time, there was a shortage of manpower, so the powers that be turned to woman power,” said Sebastian Cox, head of the air historical branch of the RAF.
“Women working was a much less common thing in 1918; they were only a very small percentage of the working population. But once you had conscription from 1916, unless the men were in a reserved occupation, such as down the mines or building aircraft or in the steel works, they were liable to be conscripted.
“So women took over the other jobs. The RAF needed women for tasks that would normally have been done by men, including waitressing in the officers’ mess: before the war that would have been a bloke.”
The demographic difficulties were not, for Mrs Green at least, without their upside: “I met dozens of pilots and would go on dates,” she also previously said.
“I had the opportunity to go up in one of the planes but I was scared of flying.”
History certainly records RAF Marham as a busy place to have served, as the battle in the skies grew in significance as the war progressed. FE2bs, RE7s, BE2s – wooden aircraft with engines less powerful than those on most modern motorbikes – set off for bombing raids throughout the day.
Today it is the base for three squadrons of Tornadoes, ground-attack aircraft that are still serving in Afghanistan. The pilots of these supersonic jets have rather different concerns than their First World War counterparts.