At the age of 108, Henry Allingham is the oldest of only 21 living British veterans of the First World War. He talks to ALEX GALBINSKI

You didn't have time to feel frightened you had too much to think about," said Henry Allingham, a veteran of the battles of Jutland and Ypres.

"You had a job to do and you concentrated on that and you got on with it. You were keen to get going, but I have been frightened nevertheless, and I think most of the men would be on their toes and that gave you a little bit of an edge."

At a time when we are bombarded by images of a very different kind of warfare in Iraq, former soldiers and historians are working tirelessly to ensure that the veterans of the two world alongside the French. He was discharged the following year and returned to his previous job as a car mechanic, testing and designing cars, until his retirement in 1961.

During the Second World War, Henry was in a reserved occupation', working on engines on behalf of the Government.

In 1941 the Germans blockaded Harwich harbour with new magnetic mines and Henry was part of the team which defused them, opening up the harbour.

But amid all his unpleasant experiences of wartime, there was one moment which Henry still cherishes meeting his late wife, Dorothy, with whom he had two daughters. He now has five grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, all of whom live in America.

"I was very fortunate while I was in the service," he said, smiling. "I met my wife and we had 53 years of wonderful marriage. I thoroughly enjoyed that they were times I wouldn't forget."

u For more information on the Royal Air Force Museum, in Grahame Park Way, Colindale, call 020 8205 2266 or visit the web site at wars are not forgotten.

Born during the reign of Queen Victoria on June 6, 1896, in Clapham, south London, Henry joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) in 1915 as an air mechanic after the organisation carried out a massive recruitment drive. He is now one of only four known surviving veterans of the British air services of the Great War in the UK.

"They advertised for men as despatch riders with the right type of machine," he said. "So I went up to the RAC Royal Automobile Club in Piccadilly. They said I had a suitable motorbike and provided I passed the medical, I was in. I then waited they said there was 2,000 on the waiting list.

"Of course, I was anxious to get in there. I had wanted to go in before but my mother didn't want me to go. Once I lost my mother whom he had looked after as she was terminally ill I joined as a rider. I was impatient I waited two days and thought I'd get on. But I went for a ride on my push-bike, saw a plane and thought, That's for me!'"

After technical training as a fitter, he was drafted to RNAS Air Station Great Yarmouth, where he maintained a wide range of aircraft, including flying boats and sea planes that spotted for submarines and mines.

He was given the opportunity to fly in some of them to ensure the engines worked properly.

On one notable occasion in 1916, he unwittingly found himself in the biggest naval battle of the First World War. In 1916 he joined part of the Battle of Jutland when his vessel was sent to scout for the German High Seas Fleet, and witnessed shells ricocheting across the bows of the ships.

Transferred to France in 1917, Henry, now an Air Mechanic First Class, also experienced fighting on the Somme and the third battle of Ypres also known as Passchendaele, where he serviced and recovered naval fighter aircraft such as Sopwith Pups, triplanes and Camels.

"I think the men in the trenches won the war," he said modestly. "Everybody did their bit but we couldn't all be in the trenches and they did very well. I think they were the ones that had most of the hardship.

"You all had your assignment and you did the best you could. You couldn't help what you had to do but you just got on with it and did the best with your ability or else. You had no choice."

His recollection of the difficulties the soldiers in the trenches faced remains strong. "At Ypres known colloquially to British troops as Wipers', they had to eat standing in trenches, with water up to their knees. They got trench foot a diseased condition of the feet through that. They had to live there for two weeks, eat their food, sleep and other things. How they managed, I don't know, but they did, I suppose. They were like hermit crabs with their gear."

Henry originally did not want to talk about his experiences. "To me it seems like a lot of old what-have-you, but it seems to interest people now," he said.

"In between the wars I wanted to forget all war but then I felt disrespectful if I didn't say what I could for the benefit of those men who had given all they had to give in both wars on behalf of myself and thousands of other people today."

Henry was speaking on a visit to Hendon RAF Museum last week, accompanied by Dennis Goodwin, 78, chairman of the First World War Veterans' Association. At the museum, Henry had the chance to reacquaint himself with examples of the aircraft he used to work on all those years ago.

In tribute to the volunteer soldiers of the First World War, Mr Goodwin said: "In 1914 the British had a very small army. Only 250,000 went over to fight in France and Lord Kitchener the war minister pointed his finger and said, We need a million men,' and those million men responded, all volunteers and people like Henry."

Compared to the weaponry we are used to seeing in the 21st Century, the men in the Great War trained with bayonets and bullets but were confronted with mines, mustard gas and often incessant bombardment.

Henry, who now lives in Eastbourne, East Sussex, was absorbed into the newly formed Royal Air Force (RAF) on April 1, 1918, and continued to serve in France until the end of hostilities on November 11, 1918. He received the Lgion d'Honneur, the highest award for fighting