Page last updated at 07:14 GMT, Saturday, 12 September 2009 08:14 UK

The last living link to WWI combat

By Nick Bryant
BBC News, Perth, Western Australia

Claude Choules with his daughter
Claude Choules has three children and 11 grandchildren

As former comrades have passed away, history has closed in on Claude Choules, the 108-year-old who is now Britain's last witness to combat in World War I.

Claude resides on the other side of the world in a nursing home in the suburbs of Perth, Western Australia.

And though his body is failing - he is blind and partially deaf - he still possesses a lively mind.

When asked how he is, he replies in a confident and deliberate voice: "Good".

"You look good," says his daughter Daphne Edinger, who is shouting questions into his good ear.

"Thank you," he says.

"You look quite perky."

"Thank you."

Born in Worcestershire on 3 March 1901, he was told as a child that his mother had died.

In reality, she had left home because she was an actress and wanted to return to the stage.

Raised by his father, young Claude wanted to be a bugler in the Army and tried to lie about his age so that he could be recruited.

When he failed, his father got him onto a Royal Navy training ship instead and he joined up in 1916 at the age of just 14.

During the Great War, Claude was a seaman with the first battle squadron and served aboard its flagship HMS Revenge.

As a young sailor, he bore witness to one of the most remarkable episodes of the war - the surrender of the German Imperial Navy and its scuttling in 1918 at Scapa Flow, off the Orkneys.

'Bad luck'

Claude is no glory seeker. In old age, glory has found him.

Portrait of Claude Choules as a young sailor
Claude joined the Royal Navy in 1916 aged just 14

He is a modest man who feels slightly embarrassed by the attention he has received.

Did he feel proud to become Britain's last surviving veteran of World War I?

"Oh yes," he replied. "But nothing to shout about. Nothing to shout about. Other people did well, too, besides me."

Claude has come to occupy this position because of the death during the summer of Harry Patch, the Last Tommy, who died at the age of 111.

How did Claude react to that news?

"Just bad luck," he says. "His bad luck, that's all. His number was on there and that's it."

Among his memories, one of the most vivid is the extraordinary sight of the German navy being scuttled before his eyes.

"I remember all the German fleet there with their admirals. Their senior admiral was there. All their junior admirals and junior staff, they were there.

"That's all there was to it. They knew they didn't have any more chance. Or if they did, they had given up hope.

"It was left to us. It was up to us to decide what was going to happen to them. So we decided they were going to be capsized, and sent up to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys and we went with them."

In the mid-1920s, Claude came to Australia on loan from the Royal Navy and then took up a permanent transfer to the Royal Australian Navy.

A demolition expert, he was tasked with laying booby traps in Fremantle harbour, which would have been exploded in the event of a Japanese invasion of Australia.

Claude would have been one of the last servicemen to leave town - riding away from the west coast port on his pushbike as his explosive charges went off.

He also is the last known veteran to have served in both world wars.

'Keep breathing'

Since coming to Australia, Claude has never once returned to his homeland.

"Well it's an unpleasant journey, if you were not the kingpin in the team," he says.

Harry Patch
Harry Patch died in July aged 111, making Claude the oldest veteran

"And it's a waste of time, I think, getting you there. About six weeks to get you there."

That is, of course, the time it took when he came to Australia in 1926.

Claude has three children and 11 grandchildren. He is now a widower, following the death of his wife, Ethel, three years ago. They had been married for 80 years.

Nowadays, one question is asked of Claude more than any other. To what do you attribute your longevity?

"Mostly he says with a chuckle, 'Just keep breathing'," admits his daughter.

"But sometimes he says having a happy family around you, and other times he says a dose of cod-liver oil every morning."

Other than Claude, there are now just two other veterans of World War I - American Frank Buckles, who is also 108, and Canadian John Babcock, who is a year older.

It is not thought that either Mr Buckles or Mr Babcock were directly involved in combat.

How does it feel then to be the last?

"No worries," Claude says, in the idiom of his adopted land. "No worries".

Just the luck of the draw? Somebody's got to be last?

"That's right. Why not me?"



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