There was plenty of cake but no talk of war at Claude Choules's 110th birthday party in Perth yesterday. Despite 41 years in the armed forces, the last surviving combat veteran of the First World War is a pacifist, according to his family.
Just a week ago, there were two men alive who served in the Great War of 1914-18. But with the death last Sunday of the US veteran Frank Buckles at 110, Worcestershire-born Mr Choules is the last man standing. The only other surviving veteran is Florence Green, also 110, from King's Lynn in Norfolk. She joined the Women's Royal Air Force in 1918 but did not see active service.
Mr Choules – still known as "Chuckles", his nickname from Navy days – is blind, almost deaf and too infirm to walk. But he is said to be otherwise healthy and happy in the nursing home where he moved when he was 105.
For yesterday's landmark birthday, his family – three children, 11 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren – organised a low-key party, which was attended by officers from a Perth naval base.
The last of more than 60 million troops who were mobilised worldwide during the Great War, Mr Choules joined the British Navy in 1915 at 14 after lying about his age. In 1918, while serving on the battleship HMS Revenge, he witnessed the surrender of the German fleet and the scuttling of its ships at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.
An explosives expert, he transferred to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the 1920s. In the Second World War he laid mines in Fremantle harbour, south of Perth, in case the Japanese invaded. He met his wife, Ethel Wildgoose, in 1926 and remained happily married to her until she died in 2003, at the age of 98. Mr Choules – Australia's oldest man and the only living veteran to have served in both wars – remained in the Navy until 1956 but never took part in military parades after he retired. "He didn't think we should glorify war," said his daughter, Daphne Edinger.
His son, Adrian Choules, said that after joining the Navy, Claude was trained to regard Germans as "monsters, terrible people". But he soon realised they were "exactly the same" as everyone else. "He hated war," said Mr Choules. "War for him was a way of making a living. That was his job."
After leaving the Navy, Mr Choules and his wife led a quiet life, fishing for crayfish and devoting themselves to their family. Mr Choules did not own a car until he was 50, preferring a bicycle. In past interviews he has attributed his longevity to regular exercise, cod-liver oil, laughter and a healthy diet with little alcohol. Over the decades, he has watched his friends die. Two fellow British veterans – Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, aged 110 and 113, respectively – passed away in 2009. The last combatant from the opposing side, Frank Künstler, from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, died in 2008, aged 107.
Mr Choules was indifferent to the media attention yesterday. "He could not care less about his birthday," said Adrian. "He's a celebrity now but that's only because everyone else has died."
His other daughter, Anne Pow, said he was content in the nursing home. "He's just going to quietly drift out of life – eventually," she said.