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    Britain and Germany's oldest First World War veterans meet for the first time

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    30 October 2006



    By Julie Mccaffrey

    THE two elderly gentlemen are helped from their wheelchairs, stand as straight as their frail frames allow, and hug tightly like long-lost brothers.

    This is the moment Britain and Germany's oldest First World War veterans meet for the first time.

    Henry Allingham, the UK's oldest man at 110, made the exhausting 600-mile trip from Eastbourne in East Sussex to Witten, 25 miles south of Dortmund, to meet Robert Meier.

    Robert is also his country's longest living citizen at 109.

    Ninety years ago, air mechanic Henry flew over the Somme crouched in the back of a biplane and dropped bombs on to the battlefield where infantryman Robert dived for cover. But today the warmth of their greeting leaves many in the room in tears.

    Henry's trembling hand reaches out to touch Robert's cheek and, as his eyes fill up, he says: "It's a joy to meet you, old chap."

    Beaming Robert clutches Henry's shoulder and says: "Wunderbar!".

    Throughout lunch, the pair clutch hands and hold their heads close in conversation like old comrades rather than former foes.

    An interpreter sitting with them dabs tears from his eyes because their exchanges are so affectionate. Henry tells Robert: "I can't see very well. I can't hear very well. But I can still feel. And it feels wonderful to meet you. A thousand words cannot convey how happy I feel today."

    Robert responds: "You and I prove that we are never too old to make new friends - and I already consider you an old friend. You understand so much of what I am saying, but there are not many of us left."

    This is Henry's first time on German soil since he served in the Army of Occupation in 1919. Henry says: "Although we were considered enemies, during the Occupation I saw the German families like yours suffered just as much, if not more, than we did. You didn't want war, and neither did we.

    "Your country was starving. Yet still the German family I was billeted with showed me kindness I will never forget. There was none of the bitterness, none of the rancour that some people had after the Second World War."

    As the wine and beer flow, Robert gees up teetotal Henry: "Where were you at the Somme? I was waiting to meet you."

    Henry laughs: "It was a long time ago, but I didn't shoot you!"

    Both share a mischievous streak. Henry insists his secret is "cigarettes, whisky and wild women", while Robert hired belly dancers for his 109th birthday party. "Even now I could still do a good waltz, but it depends on the right partner," he says.

    But despite the jokes, each lives with unspeakable memories of the battlefield.

    Henry is the only remaining man who took part in the battles of the Somme, Ypres, Jutland and Passchendaele.

    Robert fought in the front line in the Great War and was captured by the Russians in the next conflict.

    The veterans, who laid a wreath at Witten's war memorial, still feel the pain of seeing pals slain. "Today we won't talk of unspeakable things. Today is about peace," says Henry.

    Born in Clapham, South London, on June 6, 1896, Henry joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915 and was sent to France. He says: "Nobody told us what it was really like out there. It was terrifying. Horrifying. I can't describe, or forget, the stench of death."

    He still cries when he recalls seeing pilots burn to death, or of falling into a mud-filled pit that swam with rats and body parts.

    Henry was demobbed in 1919 and retired as a Ford engineer in 1961. He has 32 descendants, including a great, great, great grandchild, aged three.

    Robert, born on March 10, 1897, was conscripted in 1916, aged 19, and ordered to the Somme. He fought at Reims and Saint Quentin but was shot in the knee at Chemin Des Dames and sent home. In 1939 he was working on the railways, but was captured and held as a PoW until 1948. His son Heinz, 70, lives near his father, who insists his long life is down to porridge, beer and chocolate.

    After their emotional meeting on Saturday the two are helped from their seats and grasp hands. Robert says: "I am an old man, but you have made me feel young again. Thank you for coming all this way to see me. Thank you for everything."

    Henry said: "I never thought I'd see the day I met a 109-year-old German soldier. I wish you a much longer life, young man. Much longer."

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