Chief Petty Officer Claude Choules: The last combat veteran to serve in the Great War and the last man to serve in both World Wars

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The Independent Online

Claude Choules, who has died at the age of 110, was the very last combat veteran to have seen active service in the Great War. He was also the last man to have served in both World Wars and to have witnessed thesurrender and scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet. In the Second World War he served with the Royal Australian Navy as a demolition officer tasked with the sabotage of Fremantle Harbour in the event of a Japanese invasion.

Claude Stanley Choules was born in Pershore, Worcestershire, just six weeks after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. He was one of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. The family moved to the small village of Wyre Piddle when he was a small boy, and he had vivid memories of the first car passing through the village, when all the inhabitants came out to see a liveried man with a red flag striding along in front to prevent the car going over the speed limit.

His mother Madeline, a Welshactress, left home when he wasfive. He was told she was dead, butshe had returned to the stage and he never saw her again. As a consequence the younger siblings were scattered among relatives and he was brought up by his father with his two older brothers and educated at the local school. His childhood was largely spent outdoors, playing with his brothers, swimming and fishing with his father from a clinker boat.

In 1912, the young Claude was captivated by the tragic story of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who perished at the South Pole. He also loved the naval stories recounted by the only sailor in his village, and it was these two influences that persuaded him, at the age of 14 in April 1915, to sign up for the Training Ship Mercury which was under the command of the charismatic commander CB Fry, the Oxford Triple Blue and cricket captain of England and Sussex.

The Mercury was berthed in Southampton, where the young Choules could also see the great liners of the day, including the Mauretania, the Aquitania and the ill-fated Lusitania, passing through. The Mercury was a tough initiation, where the trainees still slept in canvas hammocks. After a few months he was moved to HMS Impregnable, based at Devonport, and received his first wage of one shilling and sixpence per day.

When he reached 16 he was considered experienced enough to jointhe Grand Fleet, and with other young sailors he took the crowded trainfrom Plymouth to Thurso in the north of Scotland and then travelled byferry to join HMS Revenge, the flagship of the First Battle Squadron.This massive battleship had eight15-inch guns and even at 30,000tons boasted a top speed of 23 knots and had a crew of more than a thousand men. As a boy sailor Choules was often aloft on look-out for enemy submarines or ships.

One of his greatest thrills was to see the vast High Seas Fleet consisting of more than 40 battleships and battle cruisers manoeuvre in readiness for a possible submarine attack. At a given signal flown from the flagship each of the mighty ships would see its own destroyers pass alongside them at 30 knots to take up their position. His happiest moment on the Revenge was, inevitably, on 11 November 1918 when Admiral Beatty gave the order to "splice the mainbrace" to celebrate the end of the war.

Ten days later the Grand Fleet left the Firth of Forth and proceeded to sea to take the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet. Although the Germans had been ordered to sail without ammunition and with reduced crews, the Royal Navy was alert and ready for any last-minute treachery. Claude vividly remembered the German ships coming out of the mist led by a British cruiser.

He recalled: "When I looked astern from Revenge there were warships as far as the eye could see, and much further. What an inspiring sight!" The German fleet had surrendered without a shot being fired. Revenge was given the privilege of escorting the German Fleet to Scapa Flow.

With a lot of unrest among theGerman crews, trouble was expected. Some days later, Revenge was outon manoeuvres when she was hastily called back to Scapa Flow, whereshe was just in time to witness the amazing sight of the entire German naval fleet being scuttled by their own crews to avoid their prized ships falling into British hands. Every effort was made by the crew of Revenge to get aboard some of the sinking ships to close portholes and watertight doors, but it was far too late and every vessel went down.

In July 1919 Choules was part ofthe crew of Revenge which marched in the Victory Parade in London along with 15,000 other servicemen, to be cheered by a war-weary crowd. From Revenge, Choules was drafted to the Torpedo School at Devonport, and from there to HMS Valiant. He was involved in duties as a peacekeeper in the strife-torn Black Sea region and would later remark that "many men saw more death and destruction in 1919 and 1920 than they had seen in all their years in a major war".

He had also seen considerable unrest in his own country, and just before the General Strike in 1926, tempted by the new lives two of his siblings had already established in Australia, he agreed to be seconded to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). Shortly after his arrival at the age of 25, he found himself fighting huge bushfires, but he had already begun to enjoyAustralian life and duly signed up for the RAN.

On the first day of his voyage from the UK he met a 21-year-old English nanny called Ethel Wildgoose,who was heading for a job in Melbourne. She was a "tall brunette with dark brown eyes," said Choules, "a real stunner. It was love at first sight, certainly on my part." They married shortly afterwards, and went on to have three children.

The young family settled in Fremantle, Western Australia's principal port. As an instructor in torpedoes and explosives at the Naval Depot, Choule lived a reasonably quiet life, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, and particularly the entry of Japan in December 1941, everything changed. Fremantle now became a major base for Australian, American and Dutch naval operations and Choules, a highly experienced Chief Petty Officer, was responsible for the maintenance of torpedoes, depth charges, mines and mine-detection equipment for all of these nations.

The Japanese attacked Darwin's airfields and harbour by air on 19February 1942, killing nearly 250servicemen and civilians. When the Japanese sank a fleet of flying boats at their moorings in Broome, it was Choules who was sent to blow up the wrecks. Expecting Fremantle Harbour to be attacked, he had all theshipping and port's major facilities mined and wired. He also worked tirelessly to dispose of stray mines that were washed up on the extensive western coastline.

On his retirement from the Royal Australian Navy in 1956, Choules bought a beach and spent the next10 years crayfishing with his wifeand generally mucking about in boats. This remarkable man joined awriting group in his early 80s andwas encouraged by his teacherto record his life story. This waslater published as The Last of theLast when he was 109. In it, he puthis long life down to his loving wifeand family. Ethel had died, aged 98,in 2003, shortly after she and Claude had celebrated their 78th weddinganniversary.

Max Arthur

Claude Stanley Choules, sailor and war veteran: born Pershore, Worcestershire 3 March 1901; married 1927 Ethel Wildgoose (died 2003; two daughters, one son); died Perth, Western Australia 5 May 2011.

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