Claude Choules, a sailor believed to be the last combat veteran from the First World War, died May 5 in Perth, Australia, at the age of 110. His death follows shortly after that of Frank Buckles, the United States’ last surviving First World War veteran who died Feb. 27, also at the age of 110.
Choules, who was known as Chuckles, was born March 3, 1901, in the British town of Pershore, Worcestershire. His strong sense of family later in life is said to have been a reaction to having been abandoned by his mother when he was five. Although he was told that she died, he later found out she left to pursue a career in acting.
Anxious to be part of the war effort, Choules lied about his age to join the Royal Navy. A month after he turned 14, he was assigned to His Majesty’s Ship Revenge. He served on the battleship until the end of the war and witnessed the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet. “There was no sign of fight left in the Germans as they came out of the mist at about 10 a.m.,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Last Of The Last, published in 2009. “So ended the most momentous day in the annals of naval warfare. A fleet of ships surrendered without firing a shot.”
Choules remained in the navy after the war and was sent to Australia in 1926 to serve as naval instructor at Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria State. On the first day of a six-week cruise to get there, he met Ethel Wildgoose. They were married 10 months later. “It was love at first sight. Certainly on my part, anyway,” he wrote in the autobiography. They had three children and remained together until her death in 2003.
Finding Australia much more to his liking, he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and served as a demolition officer during the Second World War. He remained with the navy as part of the dockyard police until he retired in 1956. He and Ethel moved to Perth on Australia’s west coast where he continued his passions for swimming and fishing.
Choules did not care for the attention thrust on him as the number of First World War veterans declined. Despite being a veteran of both the First and Second world wars, he became a pacifist and refused to take part in April 25 Anzac Day celebrations, commemorating the valour of Australian and New Zealand forces that fought at Gallipoli in the First World War.
Corporal Frank Buckles, who was often referred to as Pershing’s Last Patriot, died at his home, Gap View Farm, in West Virginia. He was the last commander-in-chief and only remaining member of the Veterans of World War I of the United States Inc.
Buckles, who was born in a Missouri farmhouse in 1901, lied about his age to join the army at 16. He sailed for England in December 1917 on board the Carpathia, the ship which rescued survivors of the Titanic in 1912.
He served in Bordeaux, France, and drove ambulances and motorcycles, but did not serve on the front lines. He assisted with the repatriation of German prisoners of war after the Armistice.
After the war he returned to the U.S. and worked for the White Star Line steamship company. He was in Manila when Japanese troops invaded the city during the Second World War. He was taken prisoner and held in several austere interment camps where he lost more than 50 pounds. He was suffering from beriberi and dengue fever when he was freed by the Americans in 1945.
He returned to the U.S., married and ran a cattle farm in West Virginia. His wife, Audrey, died in 1999.
Unlike Choules, Buckles enjoyed the spotlight his longevity brought him and became an advocate for the dedication of a national memorial to honour those who fought in the First World War.
Canada’s last First World War veteran, Jack Babcock, died in Spokane, Wash., Feb. 18, 2010. Veterans Affairs Canada organized an End of the Era service at the National War Memorial in Ottawa attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, then-Governor General Michaëlle Jean and then-Dominion President Wilf Edmond.
The Order of the First World War, a non-profit organization based in the United States which tracks veterans of both the Allied and Central Powers, believes 110-year-old Florence Green of Britain, who served as a waitress in a British air force mess at the end of the war, is the only remaining First World War veteran.
The order says that the last veteran who fought on the side of the Central Powers was Franz Kunstler of the Austria-Hungary Army. He died May 27, 2008, at the age of 107.