SYDNEY — The last known combat veteran of World War I was defiant of the tolls of time, a centenarian who swam in the sea, twirled across dance floors, and published his first book at 108. He also refused to submit to his place in history, becoming a pacifist who wouldn’t march in parades commemorating wars like the one that made him famous.
Claude Stanley Choules, a man of contradictions, humble spirit and wry humor, died in a Western Australia nursing home on Thursday at the age of 110. And though his accomplishments were many — including a a 41-year military career that spanned two world wars — the man known as “Chuckles” to his comrades in the Australian Navy was happiest being known as a dedicated family man.
“We all loved him,” his 84-year-old daughter Daphne Edinger told The Associated Press. “It’s going to be sad to think of him not being here any longer, but that’s the way things go.”
Choules was born March 3, 1901, in the small British town of Pershore, Worcestershire, one of seven children. As a child, he was told his mother had died — a lie meant to cover a more painful truth: She left when he was 5 to pursue an acting career. The abandonment affected him profoundly, said his other daughter, Anne Pow, and he grew up determined to create a happy home for his own children.
In his autobiography, “The Last of the Last” published just two years ago, he remembered the day the first motorcar drove through town, an event that brought all of the villagers outside to watch. He remembered when a packet of cigarettes cost a penny. He remembered learning to surf off the coast of South Africa, and how strange he found that black locals were forced to use a separate beach from whites.
He was drawn to the water at an early age, fishing and swimming at the local brook. Later in life, he would swim regularly in the warm waters off the Western Australia state coast, only stopping when he turned 100.
World War I was raging when Choules began training with the British Royal Navy, just one month after he turned 14. In 1917, he joined the battleship HMS Revenge, from which he watched the 1918 surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, the main battle fleet of the German Navy during the war.
“There was no sign of fight left in the Germans as they came out of the mist at about 10 a.m.,” Choules wrote in his autobiography. The German flag, he recalled, was hauled down at sunset.
“So ended the most momentous day in the annals of naval warfare,” he wrote. “A fleet of ships surrendered without firing a shot.”
Choules and another Briton, Florence Green, became the war’s last known surviving service members after the death of American Frank Buckles in February, according to the Order of the First World War, a U.S.-based group that tracks veterans. Choules was the last known surviving combatant of the war. Green, who turned 110 in February, served as a waitress in the Women’s Royal Air Force.
Choules met his wife, Ethel Wildgoose, in 1926 on the first day of a six-week boat trip from England to Australia, where he had been dispatched to serve as a naval instructor at Flinders Naval Depot in Victoria state. Ten months later, they were married. They went on to have three children — Daphne, Anne and Adrian, now in their 70s and 80s.
The couple would spend the next 76 years together, until Ethel’s death in 2003 at the age of 98. Even in their final days together, they could often be spotted sitting side-by-side, holding hands.
“I think it was love at first sight,” Choules wrote in his autobiography. “Certainly on my part, anyway.”
Choules later joined the Royal Australian Navy and settled permanently Down Under, where he found life much more pleasant than in his home country.
“I was nobody,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio in November 2009 of his years in England. “But I was somebody here.”
During World War II, he was the acting torpedo officer in Fremantle, Western Australia, and chief demolition officer for the western side of the Australian continent. Choules disposed of the first mine to wash ashore in Australia during the war.
He later transferred to the Naval Dockyard Police and remained in the service until his retirement in 1956.
“His career has spanned some of the most significant events in maritime history,” Royal Australian Navy Capt. Brett Wolski said in a statement Thursday.
But despite the fame his military service (and longevity) brought him, Choules later in life became a pacifist who was uncomfortable with anything that glorified war. He disagreed with the celebration of Anzac Day, Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, and refused to march in parades held each year to mark the holiday.
“He didn’t believe in war,” Edinger said.
After his retirement, he and Ethel bought a beach house south of Perth and spent the next 10 years cray-fishing, relishing the peaceful moments at the end of their days when they would have tea aboard their boat.
In his 80s, he took a creative writing course at the urging of his children and decided to record his memoirs for his family. The memoirs formed the basis of his autobiography, which was finally published three decades later in 2009. He would cite the book as one of his greatest achievements.
He usually told the curious that the secret to a long life was simply to “keep breathing.” Sometimes, he chalked up his longevity to cod liver oil. But his children say in his heart, he believed it was the love of his family that kept him going for so many years.
“His family was the most important thing in his life,” Pow told the AP in a March 2010 interview. “It was a good way to grow up, you know. Very reassuring.”
Even as he passed the century milestone, he remained remarkably healthy and active, and continued to dance until a few years ago. He liked to start each day with a bowl of porridge and occasionally indulged in his favorite treats: mango juice and chocolate.
“He doesn’t have medication because there’s nothing wrong with him,” Pow told the AP on Choules’ 110th birthday.
“He’s just going to quietly drift out of life — eventually,” she added with a laugh.
Still, the aging process took its toll, and in recent years, he grew blind and nearly deaf. Despite that, his children say he retained his cheerful spirit and positive outlook on life.
“I had a pretty poor start,” he told the ABC in November 2009. “But I had a good finish.”