On July 18, 2009, Britain’s oldest man died, but Henry Allingham
was more than that; he was also the oldest man in the world, and the oldest surviving veteran of what was known at the time as The Great War.
Seven days later, Harry Patch
died. A Briton like Henry, Harry was also “the last Fighting Tommy”, the last man to go “over the top”, to personally experience the horror of the trenches. Jack Babcock, the last Canadian veteran died last year aged 109; Frank Buckles, the last American veteran, died February 27 this year aged 110. Now, they have all gone; on May 5, Claude Choules died at Perth, Australia, aged 110. He was the last man, the last person alive, to see active service in World War One.
Now, there is only one person left from that era, Florence Green, who was born in 1901, was a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force; she joined in 1918, and worked as a steward in the officers’ mess in an era when it was not considered “sexist” for female military personnel to be employed only in non-combatant roles.
The veterans of the first great conflict of the Twentieth Century, the war to end all wars, were a modest bunch. Only in the last few years before their deaths did they really speak in public. Henry Allingham was arguably the most dignified; Harry Patch, who published his memoirs only in 2007, the most introspective and thoughtful. And, from what we have seen of Claude Choules in video footage released or re-released since his death, he was the most “chirpy”.
Henry Allingham was an engineer by profession; Harry Patch was a plumber; and Claude Choules, who emigrated to Australia, spent forty years in the armed forces. These three radically different men had little in common besides experiencing the horrors of war, and increasingly, especially towards the end, speaking out against it. And it was Claude, the professional sailor, who took the lead.
Like Henry and Harry, Claude was an Englishman by birth; he was born March 3, 1901, and after lying about his age, joined the British Navy in April 1915 aged only 14. He witnessed the surrender of the German Imperial Navy, and in 1926 travelled to Australia on loan, but was never to return, transferring to the Royal Australian Navy with which he served in the Second World War.
After leaving the Navy in 1956, he became a pacifist, refusing to march in the Anzac Day parades. In an interview with Bonnie Malkin published in the London Daily Telegraph
, on Armistice Day last year, Adrian Choules
said of his father: "He used to say that while he was serving in the war he was trained to hate the enemy, but later he really grew to understand that they were just young blokes who were the same as him", adding "He said wars were planned by old men and fought by young men and they were a stupid waste of time and energy. “
Like Harry Patch, Claude Choules left it until the eleventh hour before writing his memoirs
; produced with the help of his daughters, they were published in 2010 as The last of the last : the final survivor of the First World War
The legacy of these grand old men is a loathing for war and all it stands for, yet since they first took up arms for their country we have seen not only a second and even greater world war, one in which the atomic bomb was used, but hundreds of regional conflicts which persist to this day. And, in recent years, from the 1970s especially, we have witnessed a new phenomenon: the war by proxy of international terrorism. Terror is of course nothing new; the Fenian Brotherhood, the forerunner of the (now defunct) Provisional IRA was founded in America in 1858, and terrorism was not new even then, but it is only really since the late 1960s early 1970s that we have seen innocent civilians including women and children targeted by those who would overthrow the existing order, or even destroy us. The culmination of this terror was the atrocities of 9/11, which those with sick minds and of a certain perverted ideology saw as a latter day replay of David and Goliath, the valiant warrior striking at the Great Satan on behalf of the oppressed peoples of the world.
Claude Choules died three days after Osama Bin Laden, and lived to twice his age. While we must never forget Bin Laden and the evil that he brought to the world, let us remember above all this grand old man, and those other grand old men Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, and all those who unlike Henry, Harry and Claude, saw the horrors of war, but did not live to tell.