Claude Choules is dead. Long live the Great War

DJ Taylor says the conflict will live in our memories despite the loss of its last veteran

The shadow of the Great War still hangs over half the households in England, 93 years after it ended. Looking back at my own family history, I can offer a grandfather invalided out after Passchendaele, Great-Uncle Walter, who never came back, and Great-Uncle Reg, who died after a bullet that lodged in his head started making its presence felt long years later. And the Mons Star still winks from my grandfather's row of medals, alongside the postcards sent back from the front. There must be hundreds of thousands of similar clusters the length and breadth of Britain.

Seen in this context, Claude Choules's death, at the ripe age of 110, is one of those intensely symbolic moments at which a human chain breaks, a line gets drawn under our perceptions of an historical event, and the observational powers brought to bear on it will henceforth labour under the fatal disadvantage of being second-hand. Like his distinguished predecessors Albert H Woolson (died 1956), the last Union veteran of the American Civil War, Edwin Hughes, the last survivor of the Balaclava (died 1927) and George Ives, final relic of the Boer War (died 1993), his passing takes on a figurative significance altogether dwarfing his individual achievements. Never again will an historian be able to ask the question, "What was the Great War like?" to a man who actually fought in it.

And yet, if Mr Choules's death is an intensely symbolic moment – still more so, in that he witnessed one of the Great War's defining operations, the surrender of the German Imperial Fleet – it is only that. The mythologising process brought to bear on 1914-18 began practically from the moment the Armistice was signed, even earlier, if you count the Great War poetry that is, in cultural terms, one of its most enduring legacies. Sometimes taking up its great figures, and sometimes casting them aside, this movement could produce perceptions of the conflict that were yards away from the historical reality.

Military historians are still debating the exact role played by General Douglas Haig, later Earl Haig, and the effect of his tactics on Allied casualties, but the popular impression of him remains that of "Butcher Haig" of the Blackadder caricature: a kind of futile half-wit who could send a battalion out to be slaughtered without turning a hair. Nine decades later it is possible to see the Great War as a gigantic filter, through which all kinds of national obsessions – class, Empire, patriotism – are endlessly refracted. Above all, there is its profound importance as a symbol of "Englishness", capable of informing everything from a literary novel to a rock album. To listen to PJ Harvey's new album, Let England Shake, for instance, is to uncover a chain of cross-references to Great War poets, bodies hanging on the wire, all seamlessly woven into the 21st-century national fabric.

And where does this leave Claude Choules, who was born shortly after the death of Queen Victoria and lived to see her great-great-great-great-grandson walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey with his bride?

On paper, Mr Choules was merely a tiny cog in the wheels of a vast war-engine that took millions of men and women to their deaths. The intellectual refining process that works on great historical conflicts left him and his comrades behind decades ago. But the sight of him on television not long before his death, talking about the "happy life" he had left, had the average viewer on the edge of the seat: an extraordinary twitch on the historical thread and an unignorable nod in the direction of Flanders guns, churned mud, khaki hordes, all the things that are as much a part of our collective past as 'F.D.' on a penny or a Chelsea pensioner's scarlet coat.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum