Claude Choules, the last known combat veteran of WWI, has died aged 110. Born in England in 1901, he was too young to enlist in the army when the war broke out in 1914, so he waited until he was 15 and enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he saw service throughout the war.
Unlike most veterans, he liked the service and stayed on. While working as a visiting instructor for the Australian Navy, he fell in love with the country and moved there. When war broke out again he fought for his new country in its navy. He retired after 40 years in service but never stopped being active. At the tender age of 80 he took up writing and penned his memoirs. Over time he became a pacifist and controversially refused to participate in ANZAC Day parades. There’s much more to his story, so check out the link and his memoirs, assuming the book isn’t sold out by now.
Choules fought on the sea, so with no battlefields to visit, where can you see the legacy of WWI’s last combat veteran? A good start would be the museums of the two navies in which he served. The Royal Naval Museum in Portsmouth, UK, currently has an exhibition called Sea Your History: 20th Century Royal Navy that shows what life was like aboard naval vessels during the two world wars and beyond. This gives a good insight into what a teenaged Claude Choules had to endure. The Royal Australian Navy Heritage Centre at Garden Island Naval Base near Sydney also has displays about life in the navy. I wouldn’t be surprised if both museums make special exhibitions to mark the passing of this remarkable man.
But you don’t have to go to the UK or Australia to see Choules’ legacy. He lived through the most momentous event of the early 20th century. The war changed Europe and the world. The millions of deaths seriously weakened Europe’s hold on their colonies and emboldened independence movements in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The old aristocracy found itself hit hard financially and began to lose their grip on society. Large numbers of women got to work in factories and other “man’s jobs” for the first time, and began to question why they couldn’t vote.
While the First World War wasn’t the sole factor in the end of colonialism or the rise of women’s rights, it was a major one. If you want to see Claude Choules’ legacy, just look around you.
[Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons]