This is the recent story of Claude Choules.
Briton Claude Choules, who died Thursday aged 110, was the last surviving man to have seen action in the First World War.
On the outbreak of war in 1914 he tried to join the British Army as a boy bugler by lying about his age. Instead he was sent in 1915 to the boys’ training ship Mercury, under the headmastership of the athlete CB Fry, moored in the Hamble river. He then completed his training in the former 140-gun wooden Impregnable, berthed in the Hamoaze. He was still in her when he heard the news of the battle of Jutland.
In October 1917 he joined the 40,000-ton battleship Revenge as a boy seaman, first class. The ship had fired more than a hundred 15in shells at Jutland, and Choules’s next ship was another veteran of the battle, the fast battleship Valiant.
Choules witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet off the Firth of Forth in November 1918 and King George V’s review of the fleet at Southend in 1919.
He was still in Revenge when the German ships were scuttled at Scapa Flow and remembered the German commander-in-chief, Ludwig von Reuter, being brought to Revenge’s quarterdeck and accused of acting dishonourably for scuttling his ships contrary to the internment order. Later in 1919, as flagship of the 1st Battle Squadron, Revenge was sent to support the Greeks in their war against the Turks and entered the Black Sea to assist the White Russian army during the evacuation of the Crimea.
Christened Claude Stanley Choules, he was born on March 3 1901 in Pershore, Worcestershire; his father was a haberdasher and his mother an actress, Madeline Winne. As a boy in the village of Wyre Piddle he recalled fishing in the river, tourists arriving by steamboat, and the first motor car – led by a red flag.
Known for most of his life as Charles, he went to the village school and Pershore National Boys School. His sister and his two older brothers, Henry and Douglas, emigrated to Western Australia, where the two boys joined the Australian Imperial Force. They survived the fighting at Gallipoli and in France. Henry, a sergeant in the 16th Battalion, earned the Military Medal in April 1917 for his “magnificent courage” in rallying his men during an advance on the Hindenburg Line, and served in the Australian Army in the Second World War. But three other members of the family left their names on Wyre Piddle’s First World War memorial.
After Revenge and Valiant, Choules joined Eagle, the Navy’s first purpose-built aircraft carrier. While she was in refit at Portsmouth, he was in a party sent to Cardiff, where he played football with striking miners.
As a leading torpedoman he answered a call in 1925 for volunteers to man the Royal Australian Navy. He took passage in the Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line’s steamship Diogenes, in which he fell in love with one of a party of 12 children’s nurses whose passage to Australia had been sponsored by the Victoria League.
They married soon after reaching Melbourne, on December 3 1926. She was a Scot, Ethel Wildgoose, from Lossiemouth.
The RAN promptly sent Choules back to Britain for courses at HMS Vernon, in Portsmouth, and then to John Brown’s shipyard on the Clyde where the new heavy cruiser Canberra was being built for Australia. She was commissioned on July 9 1928 under the command of Captain George Massey RN and, after five months in British waters, sailed for Fremantle, Western Australia.
Choules’s new bride had accompanied him back to Britain and their first daughter, Daphne, was born in Portsmouth – his new family did not see Australia again until January 1929.
In 1931 Choules was briefly discharged from the RAN but joined the reserve and served short spells at sea in the cruisers Canberra and Australia. He was recalled in 1932 as a Chief Petty Officer Torpedo Instructor and for nine years trained hundreds of young Australians at the Fremantle depot of HMAS Leeuwin.
In the Second World War Choules became chief demolition officer on the west coast of Australia. When a strange object washed up in December 1940 near Esperance, he was flown there to investigate what was the first mine to reach the continent during the war; it turned out to be a dummy from the German raider Orion.
In 1942, when it was feared that the Japanese might invade at Fremantle, he was given the task of preparing the demolition of the harbour facilities and oil tanks. He also planned to sink with depth charges any ships which could not escape the invaders: his personal evacuation plan was to cycle the 300 miles south to Albany.
For three months in the Australian summer of 1943-44 Choules was sent in the patrol vessel Kingbay, a 237-ton motor ketch, to clear the harbour of Broome of flying boat wrecks. Fifteen aircraft, which were being used to evacuate Dutch refugees, had been destroyed at their moorings during a Japanese air attack on March 3 1942, with much loss of life, and Choules’s task with a team of divers was to blow the wrecks into segments and sink them again in deeper water.
At 50, when his character was assessed as “very good” Choules was obliged to leave the Service. He settled on the beautiful and then lonely Coogee Beach, 10 miles south of Fremantle, where he and his family loved to camp, fish and sail in a dinghy which he built himself.
He worked briefly as a warder for the Western Australian Prisons Department, and regarded himself fortunate when he found five years’ service as a dockyard policeman, cycling to work to keep fit. On retiring in 1956 he built a house further south on the front at Safety Bay, buying himself a 20ft clinker-built wooden boat, and becoming a crayfisherman for the next 10 years. He made craypots from tea-tree cuttings and prospered at the beginning of an industry servicing a growing number of restaurants around Fremantle.
In his eighties Choules took lessons in writing from the bestselling authoress Elizabeth Jolley and wrote his autobiography, The Last Of The Last (2009), for the benefit of his 36 direct descendants. He was also interviewed for the BBC’s program The Last Tommies.
Until he was 100 Choules cared for his ailing wife before they moved into a Baptist hostel, where she died aged 98. Attributing his longevity to the love of a happy family and a good, daily dose of cod liver oil, he said that if he lived his life again he would do just the same. In 2009 he was awarded the Australian Defence Medal.
Charles Choules is survived by two daughters and a son.
Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph.
This is posted to OSP in remembrance of all those who have died in action protecting their loved ones and country. We owe you all a great debt of gratitude.