Before his death at the age of 110 in May 2011, Claude Choules was the last man alive who had served in both WWI and WWII. Claude learned life’s lessons during a rural childhood in England and later in the Royal Navy as a boy sailor, before graduating to become an explosives expert in the Australian navy. In his 80s, Claude took creative writing classes and began working on his memoirs with the help of his daughters. The Last of the Last is a riveting account of his life that vividly mirrors how the last century unfolded. Choules had the insight of an ordinary man thrust to the forefront of international conflict. He was opposed to the glorification of war, but his charming anecdotes honor a generation called upon to serve not once but twice. His engaging, wryly humorous excerpt autobiography reflects the amiable nature of a truly unique man. It was published when Choules was 109 years old. The following is an excerpt, detailing his experience of joining the Navy in 1915 when he was just 14 years old:
I Join the Navy
I joined the Mercury, a three-masted sailing ship in April 1915, a day after my 14th birthday. My number was 1392. She was anchored at the mouth of the Hamble River, which empties into Southampton Water. We boys used to see the great Atlantic liners such as the Mauretania (holder of the Atlantic Blue Riband for 26 years). Aquatania, Lusitania, Laurentic, the original Majestic and scores of wonderful ships travelling through Southhampton Water. We could only imagine the luxury in cruising in liners like that, for life in the Atlantic Blue Riband was tough.
On entry into the school, the first thing we submitted to was a haircut–all over with, short clippers–then we had to bath and kit up. We weren’t allowed belt or braces, so one could always identify a new boy by the fact that every few paces, he would stop and hoist up his bell-bottom trousers. We soon got used to letting them rest on our hips.
We slept aboard every night in canvas hammocks with no mattresses. These hammocks were slung between wire gantlines, stretched athwart -ships and set up by bottle screws. Each hammock was allowed 18 inches of space. After a general muster, the hammock-stowers served out hammocks, which were then slung by hand and foot lanyards to the gantlines, allowing each boy his allotted place. We were then directed to the clothes lockers for our issue. At the order ‘Turn in,’ the instructor set his stopwatch going, and at the end of one minute, we all had to be in our hammocks with our clothes off and folded in our lockers. Any boy not off the deck had to spend an hour doing blanket-edging, that is, stitching along the top and bottom of a blanket. This is how sailors learned to sew.
We were never allowed in a boat or on board a ship with our shoes on. They had to be left in a shelter at the end of the pier where we embarked in the boats with 12-oared cutters that would take us to the Mercury. In winter, we sometimes had to hop into these boats with several inches of snow on the thwarts and bottom boards. The oars were double-and-treble banked; that is, there were two to three boys to an oar for the quarter-mile pull off to the ship. In the summer months, we had to swim ashore every morning.
Boys were classified as non-swimmers until they could swim from the ship to the pier. A penalty for non-swimmers was that they did not receive a slice of cake each week. The cake was about four inches square and one inch thick, a mixture of something like a rock cake–it was so hard it was called a ‘brick.’ The non-swimmers also had to pull the cutters ashore with the swimmers’ clothes, all folded neatly, and lay the clothes out in the shelter on the pier. Towels were also laid out in this shelter but were not enough to go round, so some had to do the best they could with a towel which had already been used. We had to swim ashore for five or six months of the year. In the colder months, we took the boat.
The non-swimmers went aboard the ship each day for their lessons. They would strip off on the upper deck and go down the gangway onto the boat-landing platform, a wooden grating about 20-feet long and four or five feet wide, where the instructor was standing with a six-feet-long boat-hook stave in one and a cane in the other.
He would ask, ‘Can you swim, boy?’ If the answer was ‘No, Sir,’ he would ask, ‘Have you ever been in the water before?’ On receiving a negative answer, he would give the order, ‘Jump in.’
If the boy who had not been in the water before was afraid to jump in, the instructor would say to two of the senior boys, ‘All right, fist him and chuck him in.’ This they would do, probably with great delight. The boy would struggle on entry into the water and rise to the surface, whereupon the instructor placed the end of the stave within reach. The boy would grab it, hoping to use it to climb out of the water. But then he would receive a cut with the cane on his fingers to restrain him. The instructor would talk to him and draw him through the water as he hung on grimly to the end of the stave. After a while, the order would come: ‘Now, let go of the stave.’ And when the boy did, he’d move it a few inches from his hands and say, ‘Reach out and grab it.’
In this way, the boys were taught the essentials of breast stroke. It certainly got good results, though it was a cruel way to treat youngsters who had never seen more water than the amount of their bath in front of the kitchen fire at home. Luckily for me, I could swim before I joined, though I couldn’t swim a quarter mile (400m), but I soon learned, and, in the annual regatta and swimming sports, I took part in the mile race…*
Before we left the ship in the morning, we had to scrub the decks and after getting ashore, we put our shoes and were marched up to the house and lectures rooms where we cleaned out the room then had our bath. This took place in a communal-shower room, where the boys stripped off in the anteroom and then entered the shower room, naked. A senior boy slapped a small amount of soft soap on their hands as the boys passed him, each one taking their toothbrush from the rack and dipping into a container of pink, precipitated powder. Once the instructor gave the order to clear the bathroom, we filed out, halting in front of him, pulling down our bottom lips to show him our teeth were properly cleaned. We then turned round to show our backs and he would say, ‘Carry on.’ Only then could we proceed to dress. In summer the water would often be too hot and in winter too cold. But we dared not complain aloud.
After breakfast in the dining hall, we went to Divisions, a general muster, where the ship’s band played the national anthem, followed by the anthems of the British Allies. After Divisions we went to instructions, comprising seamanship, gunnery, rifle drills, signals. Morse and semaphore, and physical training. Lunch was at noon, and there was more schooling during the afternoon. Tea was at 4 p.m., then there were evening classes in seamanship and signals after which, each having been issued a hard ship’s biscuit, we were mustered again and marched down the pier. There it was ‘off boots’ and down the cutters to pull off to the ship, where the night officer again mustered us and ordered us to ‘turn in.’
We had a church service every day, twice on Sundays, conducted by the chaplain. It was the very high Church of England, with the burning of incense and carrying of banners, which I did not care for very much as I was used to our low church in Wyre Piddle. However, I was made a choir boy and enjoyed the singing.
On weekends we play sport–football or cricket–with occasional walks through the countryside escorted by an instructor. On Sundays, we turned out a half-hour later than on weekdays, at 6h15.
Our mail, both inward and outward, was read. And, any money sent to us was retained and given back when we went on leave for 14 days, twice a year. We were not allowed to be idle, so in our spare time, most of us learned to do macramé work. All we needed was a piece of board, about the size of a foolscap sheet, half an inch thick, and some macramé twine which we could buy from the ship’s stores. It came in two thicknesses and various colours. We used to make ladies’ handbags, fringes for mantel pieces (very fashionable in those days), belts and wall hangings. New boys learned from the old hands. The work was fascinating and helped us in our seamanship, knots and splices…**
In the house of the Commanding Officer, C.B. Fry, was a magnificent collection of old ship models housed in two rooms, which we called the museum. On ‘clean ship’ days, I was one of the boys detailed to scrub the floors and dust around the museum. We were all fascinated by the lovely models. This collection was sold to the nation between the two world wars, and last I heard, was house in Greenwich Maritime Museum.
On Sundays, ‘clean ship’ routine was in a minor key and No.1 uniform was worn. We had Holy Communion first, after the padre had held his parish at 9h00, followed by breakfast. This meant no food until 10h00, by which time we were all starving. I’m sure we didn’t appreciate the theological benefit of this. Church was preceded by Captain’s Divisions. This was often the only occasion of the week we saw the captain. He sometimes appeared on the playing field and played cricket with us. Sunday afternoon and evening, we spent in organised outdoor activities, but less strenuous than other days, for it was our day of rest.
Our ‘walks’ were really route marches without packs. We were allowed to walk at ease but only when out of sight of the ship. Our instructors were nearly all ex-Royal Navy chief petty officers and we were sometimes treated to fine yarns, depending on how their livers were, as most were hard drinkers and had been out on the town the previous evening.
Discipline was very strict, and punishment harsh, mainly consisting of extra rifle drill, which meant marching up and down on gravel barefoot, carrying a rifle at arm’s length. Sometimes we were required to do muscle drill, that is lifting the rifle overhead head and out in front of the body. On rare occasions, such as flagrant disobedience to a direct order from the captain or instructor, a boy was caned in front of the ship’s company. He was stretched over a vaulting horse on a grating, with straps on his wrists and ankles passed through the grating and hauled taut. The cane, about five feet long, was wielded by the biggest instructor.
If one was not successful at music, there was the dancing team. This involved learning Morris dancing, hornpipes and the eightsome reel. Not being very musical, but keen on dancing, I was in the team. We used to perform at the ship’s concerts, and the prize day before Christmas leave, when the ship’s company put on a show for parents and friends. It was always very nautical in flavor. Nearly all the ship’s company took part and all were mentioned in the programme. On several occasions, the dancing team was taken to Netley Hospital, near Southampton, reputedly the largest military hospital in Britain, to entertain wounded servicemen.
Date: May 15, 2011
*Choules’ daughter, Daphne Choules Edinger, and Howard Willis edited the memoir. They interspersed Choules’ narration with historical information to expand upon certain aspects in the memoir. Here, they discuss sailor training during the WWI-era.
**Edinger and Willis give details about the history of the ship, Mercury, here.
Born in Pershore, Worcestershire, in March 1901, Claude Choules tried to enlist in the Army at the outbreak of WWI to join his elder brothers who were fighting, but was told he was too young. He then lied about his age to become a Royal Navy rating, joining the battleship HMS Revenge on which he saw action in the North Sea aged 17. He witnessed the surrender of the German fleet in the Firth of Forth in November 1918, then the scuttling of the fleet at Scapa Flow. Choules remembered WWI as a “tough” life, marked by occasional moments of extreme danger. After the war he served as a peacekeeper in the Black Sea and in 1926 was posted as an instructor to Flinders Naval Depot, near Melbourne. It was on the passenger liner to Australia that he met his future wife. He transferred to the Royal Australian Navy and after a brief spell in the reserves rejoined as a Chief Petty Officer in 1932. During World War II he was chief demolition officer for the western half of Australia. It would have been his responsibility to blow up the key strategic harbor of Fremantle, near Perth, if Japan had invaded Choules joined the Naval Dockyard Police after finishing his service. But despite his military record, Choules became a pacifist. He was known to have disagreed with the celebration of Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, Anzac Day, and refused to march in the annual commemoration parades.
He took a creative writing course at the age of 80 and recorded his memoirs for his family. They formed the basis of the autobiography, The Last of the Last, which was published in 2010. He died a year later in Perth, Australia. He was 110.