My mother, who lives in a Hove care home, celebrated her 90th birthday yesterday and by any reckoning is an old woman.

Yet Henry Allingham, who died on Saturday, was old enough to have been her father and while she was born after the First World War, he served in it.

For the first hundred years of his life, there was nothing to distinguish Henry Allingham from thousands, if not millions of men who had seen service in the two terrible world wars last century.

It was only his extreme longevity that made him famous as a symbol of what all those men endured many years ago.

In the last month of his life, he was the oldest man in the world and well before that he was the oldest man there has ever been in this country.

His lifespan was truly remarkable. He was born in 1896, the year in which cars could for the first time drive on Britain’s roads without being preceded by a man on foot carrying a red warning flag.

He was old enough to remember the death of Queen Victoria and sat on the shoulders of his grandfather to witness the Coronation procession of King Edward VII.

Henry also remembered seeing the great cricketer, Dr W G Grace; play in a match at The Oval in London.

He was too old to have served in the Second World War although he played his part in the war effort and celebrated VE Day by putting on all the lights in his house.

Although he celebrated a golden wedding with his wife, Dorothy, she has now been dead for almost 40 years.

He eventually had grandchildren who are themselves becoming elderly and was old enough to have met his great-great-great grandchild.

Although Henry had been a volunteer in the First World War, he did not speak about the conflict for almost 80 years after it ended in 1918. It was not the done thing and anyway he was a modest man.

And his service, although brave, was nothing out of the ordinary. After maintaining seaplanes, he was sent to take part in the battle of Jutland and was aboard an armed trawler which narrowly missed being sunk when a German shell bounced over the top.

Such was the muddle surrounding the services in those days that it was not until after the event that Henry was told he had been involved in the biggest battle of the war.

He joined the RAF in 1917, eventually becoming the oldest founder member. While working in France as a mechanic on early planes, he saw men standing in the trenches awaiting their turn to fight.

Although he was spared the worst sights of that conflict, the bravery of those men made a lasting impression on him and coloured the rest of his life.

He was not alone in that. J B Priestley served throughout the First World War and saw all his colleagues and friends killed or injured.

Somehow he survived, although wounded, but he felt he did not deserve it. Later he achieved great fame and fortune as a writer and broadcaster.

His wartime broadcasts in the 1940s did much to raise morale and his plays, such as An Inspector Calls, are still performed today. But he regarded his work as nothing compared with the sacrifices made by his comrades.

In the years after both world wars, many people wanted to forget their horrors. I recall in the early 1960s thinking that Remembrance Sunday services would soon be abandoned because they were so poorly attended.

In Kensington, where I first reported them, police did not even stop the traffic on a busy main road by the war memorial for the traditional two-minute silence.

But as the veterans of the First World War have almost disappeared and the veterans of the Second World War are old, interest in what they did has increased rather than declined.

And so it was that Henry Allingham, and a few of his ancient fellow combatants, stepped reluctantly as a centenarian into the limelight.

From his home in Eastbourne, Henry made regular forays into former battlefields and was an honoured guest at remembrance services.

It helped that although he was so old, Henry was able to talk coherently and movingly about his experiences on land, sea and in the air in what was then called the Great War.

He received many awards including France’s highest decoration, the Legion d’Honneur although nothing from the British Government despite a determined campaign by this newspaper.

With his eyesight failing, he moved to St Dunstan’s at Ovingdean and was awarded the freedom of Brighton and Hove earlier this year.

By this time, Henry was failing in mind and body. He was frail and the speech he made to councillors was almost totally incoherent.

Everyone associated with Henry knew then he had not long to live and it must have been a relief when he finally died, peacefully in his sleep.

Improvements in medical and social care mean that many people, like my mother, will reach 90, once considered an enormous age.

Even being 100 is not that unusual these days. At the start of her reign in 1952 the Queen used to send out about 200 telegrams a year to centenarians; now she honours more than 7,000.

I think it is more than likely that later this century, plenty of people will reach or even surpass the 113 years achieved by Henry Allingham. But they will not be the symbols of a lost generation that he became.

Henry Allingham went willingly to the front as a volunteer, not knowing of the horrors that were to come. Later he said: “War’s stupid. Nobody wins. You might as well talk first. You have to talk last anyway.”

I can’t imagine today’s youngsters being willing to volunteer, knowing what they do thanks to men such as Henry. There is also much more questioning of authority than there used to be.

The headlines made today when eight British soldiers die in a week in Afghanistan make me realise that Britons today simply would not put up with the mass daily slaughter of the 1914-18 conflict.

Both the Prime Minister and the Prince of Wales have paid tribute to Henry Allingham and their eulogies were no less than this fine old man deserved.

Perhaps he and all his comrades can be honoured in a special national commemoration when the last of the First World War veterans finally goes, and it cannot be long now.