There are two veterans of the First World War left in the world. Of all the parts of the world that move on without you, of all the borders beyond the horizon, of all the varying speeds and trajectories and characters and stories colluding together in giant waves of “now,” “yet-to-come,” “once was,” and then it boils down to two. It’s not even the whole hand.
Nine years ago, there were 700 left alive.
With the recent deaths of Frank Buckles, John Babcock and Harry Patch, we are left with Claude Choules and Florence Green. (Upon learning this, Claude remarked: “Everything comes to those who wait and wait.”) Nearly 10,000,000 men were killed in the conflict, 65 million participated, and now we are left with two. Think about that. Think about those numbers. What are you supposed to do when an era is inches away from disappearing?
And one answer is—insofar as I can tell—you catch. Which is to say, the past isn’t a bequeathal. No sword taps our shoulders and bids us rise. The past is monumental, filled with all the majesty, joy, horror, heartbreak and surprise one can imagine—and it’s also a pass, a literal pass. It’s Xavi to anybody, even people in stands at Camp Nou, I bet. It’s Rajon Rondo to anyone on the Garden floor. (Or Scottie Pippen to Michael Jordan, if you haven’t been following sports for, you know, a while.) We are speaking, writing and reading in a language whose current form has lit up the field for the past 600 years—and even with that lingua historia, we are still left with recurring questions: How do generations meet? How do they talk about each other? How do they get along? How do they say goodbye in a way that befits their intelligence and their times? And then there’s the aching impulse that haunts us and says, “It’s your story. You tell it. You, you, you.”
Lemuel Cook—the last living veteran of the American Revolution—seemed to glow at the end of his life. His grandkids would come running up to him on the porch of his farmhouse in upstate New York and say, “Tell us about George Washington. What did he look like?” and Lemuel’s voice—noted for its “volume and strength”—would say, “Let me think about it,” and, after a moment, he would begin, telling of Washington having the “kindest look in the eyes I’ve ever seen” and how the General complimented his horse once and remembered meeting him and his horse years later.
Cook was proud that he could mount his horse “as quick as a squirrel.” In interviews, he makes note of Washington forbidding laughter at the British, noting that it was “bad enough to surrender without being insulted,” and said that Cornwallis’ surrendering men had “a pint of lice on them.”
After the war, Cook moved to Utica, where—as reported in a 1905 edition of The Sunday Vindicator—he “had an encounter with an Indian,” who (according to the limited details) ended up being smashed over the head with a chair.
When it came to what happened as the Revolution’s numbers dwindled, the evidence suggests this: when 12 were left, The New York Times praised them as “The Apostles of Liberty,” and Congress voted to give each a pension. That seems to be it.
It’s believed that, in all, ten men from the American Revolution lived long enough to have their pictures taken. Elias Brewster Hillard tracked down many of them—including Samuel Downing, Adam Link, Daniel Waldo, William Hutchings and Alexander Milliner—and published the photographs and interviews in a book titled, fittingly, The Last Men of the American Revolution. The coats they wore, the composition of their hair: all of this gives us something.
In the interviews, it’s clear that the men remained as loyal and as stalwart as ever. When Brewster Hillard asked Sam Downing, “What do you think [General Washington] would say if he were here now?” you can almost see the jerk of surprise Downing must have given at the question. “Say! … I don’t know. But he’d be mad to see me sitting here. I tell ’em if they’ll give me a horse I’ll go as it is.” (When interviewed, Sam Downing was 102, looked like Christopher Lloyd and kept beehives. A bolero would not have been out of place on him either.)
So, not only do you catch, you catch and weave. Take Lincoln. Take America’s 50th Jubilee, which celebrated those who were left of the Revolutionary Era. Take the 50th and 75 anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg, where one speaker hailed those “who first met upon this field to vie with each other in doing hurt … now meet here to outvie each other in deeds of kindness and friendship and love.” (Or just open up The Upanishads: “We are like the spider. / We weave our life and / then move along it.”)
When Lincoln looked at the argument Stephen Douglas was making about states’ rights, he said this:
That perfect liberty they sigh for — the liberty of making slaves of other people — Jefferson never thought of …
When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government — that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.
Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrases our argument by saying “The white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!”
Well, I doubt not that the people of Nebraska are, and will continue to be as good as the average of people elsewhere. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.
It’s worth noting that Lemuel Cook, the last of the Revolution, hated the Civil War, calling the South’s rebellion “terrible,” insisting that it should be put down and stomping his cane on the ground for emphasis. Alexander Milliner, who had been Washington’s drummer boy, hated it, too. (Of the other last seven, Waldo wished Lincoln had been harsher on the rebels, while Link kept forgetting the war was even occurring.) Milliner even considered heading down to Rochester to literally drum up volunteers. The thought of a country “so hardly got, should be destroyed by its own people” was gutting.
And as the war came to its close in 1865 and Lincoln was vindicated in his belief that ballots and the union were the Revolution’s true inheritance, not bullets: as the South rebuilt their cities, bridges and roads and set to tending their burnt land: as investors set their sights on railroads and lumber and businesses that made turpentine: as the age drifted towards the future: as the transcontinental railroad tied coast to coast together and 23 million foreigners arrived with variations on the rucksack over their shoulder: as Twain, London and Crane took that piñata of blank paper and—with a swing—cracked out confetti and candy of the highest order: the men and women marked for WWI entered the world. Harry Patch was born (1898), Frank Buckles was born (1901), John Babcock was born (1900), Florence Green was born (1901), and Claude Choules was born (1901).
As they are born, two of the last of the Civil War, James Hard and Albert Woolson, continue to age.
Hard—the last Civil War combat veteran—lived to 111, fought at Bull Run, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and met Lincoln at the White House. He thought Lincoln was “a comical looking fellow on horseback” and was frequently referred to in his obituary as a “salty fellow,” although whether that meant George Burns material or cough-until-you-turn-red-from-embarrassment stuff, I can’t say. (Oh, how I hope the latter. Lincoln’s own jokes, rejoinders, and off-color bits—most of which were collected here—are terrific, i.e., telling an unfortunate aspirational lawyer in the middle of court, “If that’s Latin, you’d better call another witness.” One hopes Hard had similar stuff in him.)
Albert Woolson was a drummer boy who lived in Duluth, Minnesota. Like Hard, Woolson loved cigars, puffing through one after the other as he shuffled through hundreds of cards wishing him a happy birthday and roared out the lyrics to “Just before the Battle, Mother” during a radio interview the same day. From an article in Life magazine: “The townspeople know him as a deaf but high-spirited centenarian who romps with his 3-year-old grandchild, tramps up-stairs and down several times a day and still insists”—at 106—“on doing his own snow shoveling.”
There is a wonderful home video showing him in a chair with his grandchild in his lap, running her hands through her hair in front of a set of flowers that line the house. He’s wearing a blue, Mr. Rogers-styled cardigan over a shirt and tie.
What if I died a hundred years away from the year I was born?
Where would I be?
Ferdinand is shot. Belgrade is cleared and evacuated. The German navy mobilizes. The price of wheat jumps. Belgium is invaded. England’s proposed peace conference is rejected. The newspapers clear the front pages and wheel out the big type from the cargo hangars because it has arrived: WAR.
Henry Adams famously describes the new age as being filled with “Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor…” But, for some, that meteor has yet to land and make itself known. Ford only perfected their assembly lines in 1913, long before Chaplin would be slurped spaghetti-like into the cogs. Infrared photographs appeared in 1910. The Vatican thought it was worthwhile to have their priests take an oath against modernization.
It takes a second for the world to become the world, so when the Poilus-to-be (“poilus” being France’s nickname for their soldiers) and the Tommies-in-training (“Tommies,” the UK’s nickname) set to their early work, it wasn’t necessarily out of character to see them bayonet dummies amid hawthorns and horse chestnuts, thinking that that was all there was to it. They were—as Gerald Brenan, an early conscript notes— practicing for “the Boer War … we were not taught how to fight in trenches. This, we were told, was merely a temporary phase.” Another conscript, Vivian de Sola Pinto, writes of the “nebulous, but fundamentally generous and humane enthusiasm” that was in the air. To keep abreast of the latest, he picked up “the numerous editions of the morning and evening papers which appeared at all sorts of odd times.” In the midst of this, John Maynard Keynes rushed across King’s College Green in Cambridge to borrow his brother’s motorcycle and headed up to London to give his advice. Harking back to the optimism that brought picnics and revelers to the First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War, it’s thought that everyone off to the war would be home for Christmas.
As Paul Fussell notes in The Great War and Modern Memory:
At the beginning of the war, a volunteer had to stand five feet eight to get into the army. By October 11, the need for men was such that the standard was lowered to five feet five. And on November 5, after the thirty thousand casualties of October, one had to be only five foot three to get in.
The center of gravity, though, the thing that pulled men of ever decreasing height to it and became more permanent than what conscripts like Gerald Brenan could ever have imagined: The front. The visceral thereness of it. The shelling. The use of the dead as firing steps because the trench had been dug too deep to see out of. The burning petrol, the chlorine that blew back into your own lines, and the mortar fire. Unending din, unending mud. Gas masks for dogs. Water two feet high in the trench. Rats. Enough lice and dirt to cause men to weep. The dead, everywhere. A newfound fondness for the sky, its colors, iterations, and shadings—the straight and simple blue, glowing its ineffable glow.
The machine guns. Douglas Haig—nicknamed “Butcher Haig” for the two million men who died under his command—was the commander of the British Expeditionary Forces and the commander at the Battle of the Somme, referred to by soldiers of the time as “The Great Fuck-Up.” Haig thought that the effect of machine guns on horses had been “greatly exaggerated.” He makes Theodore Roosevelt’s and Kipling’s romantic illusions about the war and their subsequent heartbreak (Roosevelt lost his son Quentin, Kipling lost his son John) seem tame by comparison.
The flame-throwers. In German, it’s Trommelfeuer, as in, “Drum-roll fire.” A land crammed with corpses. Soldiers try to explode the flame-throwers’ fuel tanks by lobbing grenades. It doesn’t work. The writer Henry de Montherlant claims that one could “walk on the ground of Verdun as though on the face of the Country.” (Grant said something similar after Shiloh.) Extraordinary civilians who refuse to budge. Brenan (whose account of the war resides alongside other soldiers in the anthology Promise of Greatness) writes of a cottage “occupied by an old woman who could not go out by day without being sniped. Her cows lay around her dead on their sides; but she would not leave, and the Army had no authority to move her.”
In the trenches, Brenan and his company whisper “because the Germans were only 30 yards away, and if they heard voices they would send over a rifle grenade or a jam jarful of shrapnel.” Other Brits on the line see the Germans at night as water rats sinking into their holes, wraiths with spiked helmets, or disturbed earwigs. By contrast, the Germans saw the Brits as a “brownish-yellow fleeting shadow.”
Not all was metaphor. Some soldiers legitimately hallucinate. In one account I read, after five days without sleep, JR Mallree, a Canadian who fought at Ypres, saw all the animals from Noah’s Ark walk up and over a nearby farmhouse.
And some stories are so incredible they don’t need the aid of hallucination or metaphor: in the Battle of San Matteo—fought in the Alps, 12,000 feet above sea level—many are killed by the lightning itself.
Back in London, Lord Northcliffe expounds on the virtues of the mints being given to soldiers—round mints swirled to look like peppermint bull’s-eyes. Readers of The Times crack open their paper to find him praising the mint’s “digestive effect, though that is of small account at the front, where health is so good and indigestion hardly ever even heard of. The open-air life, the regular and plenteous feeding, the exercise, and the freedom from care and responsibility, keep the soldiers extraordinarily fit and contented.” Meanwhile, General Sir Richard Gale loses several men who just simply freeze to death and Leonard Thompson decries the amount of lice each man carries, and how “we couldn’t stop shitting because we had caught dysentery.”
In the trenches, they sing, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” “We’re here because we’re here.”
Some were ‘glad’: ” … the German trenches, as the British discovered during the attack on the Somme, were deep, clean, elaborate, and sometimes even comfortable. As Coppard found on the Somme, ‘Some of the [German] dugouts were thirty feet deep, with as many as sixteen bunk-beds, as well as door bells, water tanks with taps, and cupboards and mirrors.'”
Others weren’t: “The whole conduct of our trench warfare seemed to be based on the concept that we, the British, were not stopping in the trenches for long, but were tarrying awhile on the way to Berlin and that very soon we would be chasing Jerry across country. The result, in the long term, meant that we lived a mean and impoverished sort of existence in lousy scratch holes.”
From Fussell’s book once again.
Wilfred Owen writes his mother from the Somme at the beginning of 1917: “The waders are of course indispensable. In 2 ½ miles of trench which I waded yesterday there was not one inch of dry ground. There is a mean depth of two feet of water.” Pumps worked day and night but to little effect. Rumor held that the Germans not only could make it rain when they wanted it to — that is, all the time — but had contrived some shrewd technical method for conducting the water in their lines into the British positions — perhaps piping it underground. Ultimately there was no defense against the water but humor. “Water knee deep and up to the waist in places,” one soldiers notes in his diary. “Rumors of being relieved by the Grand Fleet.’ ”
“You could smell the front lines miles before you could see it,” someone tells an American ambulance driver who later goes on to record it in letters home.
An ambulance driver—and let’s not forget Frank Buckles, America’s last, was an ambulance driver—was in a great position to see the rest of the war-as-montage pass. From the ambulance car—which could hold up to three men, unless one was contagious—the driver could see a sky bright red, ammunition dumps on fire, black soldiers from Barbados fighting off the Germans with knives they’d brought from home (“Run Kaiser William, Run for your life, boy,” they’d sing), careless peasants rushing out to a nearby river to pick up the scores of fish that been killed by the shelling, dirt in front of the German trenches heading up in gigantic fountains, burying parties, where the soldiers would find heads that could fall off at a touch, white German pillboxes, “massive and rounded as elephants,” one soldier dribbling a soccer ball as he and his colleagues made their way to the enemy lines, someone digging a trench through a corpse, decapitating a body along the way, and soldiers complaining to the cooks that their breakfast bacon “smelled like dead men.”
The First World War also oversaw the rise of MI5 (christened as such in 1916, though they were formed in 1909), the modern world’s first iteration of a modern secret service, though, of course, the profession is as old as the Egyptians. (And surprising all the way through history, too. Did you know Daniel Defoe was a spy? I didn’t until recently.)
So MI5 intercepted mail, protected ports, continued running enemy agents long after they’d been jailed or killed, and noticed that Germany sent Lenin back to Russia with a very specific purpose in mind, one that—as the country went from nationwide strikes to repression in Petrograd to a Bolshevik majority—saw itself through.
There is plenty more to cover—the nature of the home-front in England (white feathers, the introduction of paper money, odd pub hours), France (everything shut at 9:30), and Germany (no more foreign words for the children), how one soldier imagined a tank crashing its way into a gaily laughing theater, people cruelly hungry for atrocity stories—but I hope you’ll forgive me if we leave this as an opening salvo of memory and nothing more, an aggressive splash of paint to the canvas. I’ve taken up so much of your reading time already and we still have to talk about the men who are our reason for being here: this war’s last.
Bright Williams—New Zealand’s last and a runner at Passchendaele—held a very private funeral. Russia’s last—Ukraine’s Mikhail Krichevsky—was nicknamed “The Man of Three Centuries.” Turkey’s last—Yakup Satar, who also fought for Turkey’s independence—was one of 50 secretly trained in gas warfare, even unbeknownst to his country. Yod Sangrungruang—Thailand’s last—served as a mechanic.
Lazare Ponticelli was France’s last. He came to France from Italy and adopted the land as his own, wanting “to defend France because she gave me food,” working first as a chimney sweep and then selling newspapers in the streets of Paris. He once continued to fire upon a group of Germans—blood running into his eyes—until they surrendered. When they waved the white flag, Ponticelli was not certain as to whether or not he was still alive. Then there was the man with his leg caught in the wires, screaming for help, screaming until Ponticelli sucked in some air, ran out with wire cutters, got the man free, and dragged him back into the trench. As The Economist notes, there was also “[t]he German soldier he tripped over in the dark, already wounded and expecting to be killed, who mutely held up his fingers to show him that he had two children. The comrades who helped him, because he could not read or write, to keep in touch by letter with the milkmaid he had met before the war. ”
In an interview with Le Monde, he said: “Aux enfants, je leur dis et je leur répète : ne faites pas la guerre.” (To the children, I say and repeat: do not make war.”)
Harry Patch recently passed. He was 111. Along with Claude Choules (who is an Australian citizen) he was Britain’s last veteran to fight, and was honored as the last before the “discovery” of Florence Green, who now holds that position. Patch was born in June of 1898. He served between 1916 and 1918. Helped build the University of Bristol. His death was marked by church bells across the country, a song from Radiohead, a poem from Carol Ann Duffy, as well as comments from the Queen, Prince Charles, and then-Prime Minister Brown.
Patch spoke with a hypnotic, often solemn, distinctly West Country accent (where “ye” is still used!). If whiskey was ever made with a plunge pot, that’s how it would sound. He often leaned his head on his hands atop his cane when he spoke. In interview after interview he repeated: “War is the deliberate and condoned slaughter of human beings.” He would say this to anyone who would listen—to a group of children gathered around him after he received his honorary degree from Bristol, to the camera crew that followed him to Passchendaele, and many others. In his autobiography, it’s phrased, “War is organized murder and nothing else.”
John Babcock—Canada’s last—enlisted in the army at 16 by lying about his age. He got his pilot’s license at 65 and graduated from high school at 95. (In short: an early starter.) Received a birthday card from Queen Elizabeth II for his 109th birthday, remarking that she’s “a pretty nice looking girl.” When he got to Britain, he was deemed too young to “go over the top.” Via the North Bay Nugget: “I feel guilty because I’m not a war hero. I didn’t get to accomplish what I set out to do.”
Frank Buckles, America’s: the only one with his own webpage. When he tried to sign up, he was too young—18—and the recruiter turned him away. A week later, he came back with his Grandmother. “Same recruiting station, same Sergeant … but I had increased my age to 21. He was very … gentlemanly and gave me the test.” England, first. Winchester. Drove a motorcycle around base and as an escort. Later upgraded to a Ford. Transported prisoners back from Germany. During his only leave he stayed at the Hotel de Pay in the Bay of Arachon (near Bordeaux), where, because of the water covering the ground, the postman would deliver the mail on stilts. He ultimately became a farmer in West Virginia. After he passed, Speaker Boehner and Senator Reid decided that Frank Buckles would not lie in state in the U.S. Capital rotunda. He was buried at Arlington with full honors.
Florence Green: the last living veteran in England and the last living female veteran of the war, her status identified only a few years ago, when a researcher for the Gerontology Research Group—whose goals include slowing the aging process and tracking the lives of those around the age of 110—came across a mention of her under her maiden name in the U.K.’s National Archives and traced her to her current location in Norwich. Served as a waitress in the officers’ mess as a member of the Women’s Royal Air Force for a couple months before the war came to an end. In a 2008 interview, she said: “I met dozens of pilots and would go on dates. I had the opportunity to go up in one of the planes but I was scared of flying. I would work every hour God sent. But I had dozens of friends on the base and we had a great deal of fun in our spare time.” At her birthday this past February, a reporter asked Green what it was like to be 110; she answered, “It’s not much different to being 109.” She lives with her daughter May, age 89.
Claude Choules: a 41-year career that spanned both world wars. His specialty was “blowing things up.” Witnessed the surrender of the German Navy in 1918. Born in Pershore, in March, 1901. Moved to Australia after the First World War. Sent to clean up a part of the harbor in Western Australia and came back with “a gift of pink slippers he had found” for his daughter. Used to “see hospital ships coming across and soldiers being wheeled off them.” He was walking and swimming at 100 and only moved to a nursing home at 105. (Another secret to long life, Choules deadpanned—“Keep breathing.”)
Fortunately for us, Claude Choules (still breathing) and Harry Patch (now deceased) both have autobiographies. Patch’s book is titled The Last Tommy. It’s, indeed, very nice, featuring plenty of things to underline, such as:
I do recall when I was aged about five or six, there was a big pear tree in the middle of the garden, with very tempting fruit. I remember Dad saying to me, ‘I know how many pears are on that tree, so don’t you pick ‘em.’ I didn’t, but when he next looked at the fruit, he found that I had taken a bite out of the back of every one I could reach.
Below is an episode of a documentary about WWI veterans that focuses exclusively on Patch:
Choules’s autobiography is called The Last of the Last. According to Choules’s daughter, it was written in “a variety of old school exercise books” sometime during his 80s. It is straight and sweet, sometimes dipping into details that everyone might not be familiar with—i.e., “I suggested Spud get the sailmaker in Fremantle to supply a very strong nylon triangular storm sail and rig this on a small mizzen mast stepped about three feet for’d of the transom and sheeted in hard amidships by means of sheets led to cleats fitted on each quarter.” —but it crosses the finish line as a genuinely likable book.
“On 3 March 1901, six weeks after Queen Victoria died, with the country still in full mourning, I was born in Pershore, Worcestershire,” Claude begins. He describes quite a few animals in the book, the first notable one being a cat his family owned, Smut. “When we went down into the village she would usually accompany us, walking in front with her tail in the air. On reaching the first house, she would jump through the hawthorn hedge and remain there until our return— then she would hop out and lead the way home.” He hides beneath a train track with a friend to see what it feels like when a train roars over. A cow is struck by a bolt of lightning. He goes fishing with his friends and his father. His favorite pastime is lying on his back in a hay meadow and watching the skylarks move up “in their ever-ascending spirals.” One evening “at dusk, I thought I saw a bat fly out of [an old elm tree.] On the summer evenings, we saw lots of bats flying around. I climbed the tree, put my hand in the hole and pulled out a bat. After a good look at it I put it back again.” Does the bat blink? Wriggle? Squeak? Hold still? Choules doesn’t say. Instead, he continues: “Sometimes friends would ask me to show them a bat, which I gladly did, although I always insisted that they didn’t hurt it and that I should put it back afterwards. I think the bats got to know me because I was never once bitten …”
After his brothers leave for Australia to work on the railway, Choules joins the navy in April, 1915. His boat is stationed in Southampton—for five to six months a year, he had to swim ashore. He’s taught the use of the boatswain’s pipe (or, ‘bo’sn’s pipe’), which is used to communicate specific orders, i.e., the Captain’s coming aboard, dinner’s ready, everybody to stations, and the rest.
The Grand Fleet takes Choules under its wing when he turns 16. He thrills at the sight of “greyhounds of the sea,” betraying the occasional poeticism when, after his first bit of action in WWI, he describes one retreating ship as looking like it had been “punched in the ribs.” Or when he calls a hookah a “hubble-bubble pipe.”
There are plenty of things to marvel and laugh at when he joins the Fleet—watching a 15-inch shell cause a 29,000-ton ship “to roll 10 degrees away from the engaged side due to the recoil of the guns,” discovering that there were drills so specific they included ‘Secure captain in straitjacket and send him to flagship,’ ‘Chief cook to report on board flagship with fried eggs,’ or that first bit of action, where the gunners on his ship claimed to have shot down a zeppelin.
After the war, Choules guarded the remains of Germany’s fleet at
Scapa Flow, that is, until Rear Admiral von Reuter decided to
scuttle and ground the ships. Choules writes:
The Flow was filled with German ships all flying a white flag and carrying the internment crews. All our boats were lowered and we were rushed aboard any of the German ships still afloat in an attempt to close portholes, watertight doors and such, but this proved useless, as they were too far gone … Our divers went down and closed portholes and watertight doors, while working parties manned pumps. Our ship’s company managed to raise the light cruiser Emden …
Accused of breaching the honor of the navy, von Reuter replied that he was convinced that any Englishman in his place would have done the same thing. As a result of his remarks, he was not charged.
Choules spends Peace Day in Kensington Gardens, living in a tent for a week, marches past the Cenotaph, and dines spectacularly well.
He’s soon to sea again:
During this time, sailors and soldiers of the Allies struggled with horrors from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. They rescued refugees fleeing from massacres. They warred with pirates and brigands. They policed ammunition dumps left in the wake of war, which had become a temptation to every local politician and freebooter. They settled quarrels between local sheikhs, or, if they failed, subsequently gathered the remains. They watched Smyrna burn. They rescued stranded survivors of White Russian armies and Armenian villages. They blew up Caspian forts, fed babies and rescued Christian girls.
After such high-octane activity, he manages to get some leave and decides to trek to the catacombs of Citta Vecchia (Mdina today) where the Phoenicians once lived. While waiting at the train station to be taken back, they grew impatient, realized that they could drive and fire an engine, stole a train, and ”the stationmaster was going berserk at seeing his train pinched but away we went along the single-rail track. A few miles down the line our engine crew managed to stop her on the outskirts of Valetta and we all jumped out and disappeared in all directions.”
In the ’20s, Choules tested launching aircraft from a sea-faring vessel and often leapt from the flying deck of the ship into the waves, which were some 40 to 45 feet below. On his first day on the ship that was to take him to Australia, where he planned to join the Royal Australian Navy, Choules met Ethel, who would later become his wife. They first lived in McMahons Point and watched the Sydney Harbor Bridge appear before their eyes.
Whilst we were in Sydney, Ethel would often bring the two girls aboard to visit me on my duty weekends. After looking around the ship, we would go down to my mess for afternoon tea and big Jim Mackey, our ship’s blacksmith, would pick Daphne up and say: ‘What would you like for tea, Daphne?’
Much to the amusement of Jim and my messmates she would reply: ‘A boiling negg, please.’
After Sydney, it’s to Fremantle, West Australia. There, he encounters ho-hum domestic concerns and responds in an entirely proportional way:
A frog had made its home near our front gate and in the evenings it made its mournful croaking call. This frightened Anne, so I tried to locate it under the hibiscus shrubs and hoped my attention had shifted it. But the next evening it was at it again. I promised Anne I would get rid of it by blowing it up, so I made a small charge of gelignite and placed it right on top of where I thought it was. I covered it over, lit the fuse and in a few seconds there was a loud bang. Meanwhile, the family looked on from the front verandah. I was sure that I had fixed it but almost immediately the old frog started croaking again, as loud as ever! We all collapsed with laughter, so much so that it cured Anne of her fright, meaning it wasn’t a complete waste of effort.
In the Second World War, Choules delivered a ‘recognition signal of the day’ to an island outpost, secured offshore telegraph cables, set charges on a wharf in case the Japanese created the need for a ‘scorched earth policy,’ learned how to degauss mines, taught the Americans how to degauss mines, and handled the first wartime mine washed upon Australia’s shores.
Years later, he handled the nighttime security watch when Queen Elizabeth visited Australia. He retired at the age of 55 in March, 1956 and moved to Safety Bay.
Reached by email, David Ekbladh, an assistant professor of American History at Tufts University, thinks that, in the United States at least, “the age of our connection [to the war] passed long ago …” in part because the First World War was a different type of war than those that followed and didn’t see the same ideological systems at play. “People talk of the Korean War as the forgotten war,” he says, “but even that conflict gets context as part of the Cold War, which itself is still remembered because it was a successful struggle against another side that can be seen as unsavory.”
Yet it seems to me the planet’s first global war demands a kind
of global grief. We need a moment of global empathy. If we can take
to Twitter and talk with the Greens of Iran and the revolutionaries
of Egypt, head to Flickr and watch everyone photograph everything
they see over the course of a day, could we not also take a moment
to tilt our heads, and turn our attention from the present to the
past? Maybe hand out shovels to men and women on the street and
say, “Congratulations—you’ve just been drafted as an
I hope none of the last ever had a moment where they said, “Wait, where did everyone go?” I hope each of them had a dog, cat or an eight-foot tall Polynesian-speaking cockatoo as loyal as Argos. I hope the porches were spacious and the sun was sweet, and that lemonade, whiskey or games of chess were always close at hand. If you’re Claude, I hope you saw the statues that line Cottlesloe and that they astonished and amazed—or that the Swan River carries past your window a different and wonderful boat or creature every day. If you’re Florence, I hope the streets of King’s Lynn are active—that the long lanes that mark the area are just as active today as they were in the 40’s—that there’s plenty of talk as to what to take to the garden this year, that the radio is propped up on the garden wall, Alan Green is announcing an electric match, and a cat is trying to nibble the plastic, curious as to what the noise-emitting thing exactly is …
Marking the death of Lazare Ponticelli, France’s last, Sarkozy said: “It is to [Lazare Ponticelli] and his generation that we owe in large part the peaceful and pacified Europe of today. It is up to us to be worthy of that.” And he’s right.
It’s a legacy that was taken up by Robert H. Jackson and Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, chief prosecutors for the U.S. and the UK at Nuremberg. It’s a legacy you feel as you hear Lazare, Claude and Harry say, over and over again, “No more war. Stop.”
Bill Clinton came to speak at Tufts University when I was 16. In an improvised speech—he’d been so impressed with the previous speaker he’d decided to throw all his remarks out the window— he touched on Ireland and the “Troubles” and compared it to Israel and Palestine. I’d switched tickets with my Dad and gotten a seat in the front row. After he was done, I managed to stop him on the rope line by saying I was reporter for the Newburyport Daily News, which was true. I asked him if he had time for a question. He said, “Shoot.” I said, “What do you think’s the basic psychological principle that prompts all human conflict?”
“Envy,” he said, and then began to riff on soccer matches and Richard Wright’s Nonzero, a book that stresses the need for a non-zero sum—or, rather, positive-sum solution. It’s a rigorously banal book (so much so that I forgot I was reading it twice) but the basic “point” it makes is sound: distribute risk, distribute generosity: society is too close, too woven together to expect or allow anything different.
At this point, Clinton had been talking for so long—10, 15 minutes—I felt like I had to say something, so when he started to talk about seeking non-zero-sum solutions in conflict situations, I said, “Like the Christmas truce of 1914.” He said, “Right,” and then he moved on—a sixty-mile-per-hour answer brought to a screeching halt. Part of me felt crushed. At the time, I thought my response had let him down. As I passed out of the crowd, amazed people asked, “What did you say to him?”
But there was nothing wrong in bringing up the truce. Christmas Day 1914. That day the firing stopped. “You English,” someone called from the German trenches. “Why don’t you come out?” A few deeply sarcastic Englishmen—perhaps noting the candles that had already been lit for the holiday, points of light flaring amid the mud and bodies—replied, “Waiter! Waiter!”
A letter-writer to the London Times described it this way:
Our fellows paid a visit to the German trenches, and they did likewise. Cigarettes, cigars, addresses, &c., were exchanged, and everyone, friend and foe, were real good pals. One of the German officers took a photo of English and German soldiers arm-in-arm with exchanged caps and helmets.
… a football match was played between them and us in front of the trench. They even allowed us to bury all our dead lying in front, and some of them, with hats in hand, brought in one of our dead officers from behind their trench, so that we could bury him decently.
The peace did not hold, of course. It would take four years for the war to come to its proper end. From Fussell—one more time: “On the Fourth Army front, at two minutes to eleven, a machine gun, about 200 yards from the leading British troops, fired off a complete belt without a pause. A single machine-gunner was then seen to stand up beside his weapon, take off his helmet, bow, and turning about walk slowly to the rear.”
And of course, even as this “war to end all wars” was ending (but without ending war), another generation was springing up—”daisies amongst the concrete.” Here are just a few of the names in that register: Julio Cortazar (b. 1914), John Fitzgerald Kennedy (b. 1917), Alan Lomax (b. 1915), Billie Holliday (b. 1915), Saul Bellow (b. 1915), Francis Crick (b. 1915), Harold Wilson (b. 1916), Thelonious Monk (b. 1917), Spike Milligan (b. 1918), Anwar Sadat (b. 1918), Nelson Mandela (b. 1918). Which makes me think: when those of my generation place their centennial flag in the ground in 2084, 2085, 2086, and 2087—and hello, future you! Do you have flying cars yet? And if so, are they in rock bands with other flying cars?—it would be nice to bow out amongst our grandchildren knowing we stood tall enough to catch the lessons of the past—those things that threatened to entropy—and hand off a better past, that we made Walt Whitman’s job global, that every atom in me really did end up belonging to you, that we figured out how to do niceness and happiness in a smart, new, warm and lively way, that we fined experts a nickel when they used the phrase, “The world has become increasingly complex” and figured they’d done their analytical job for the day, that we did not shirk the serious, that we did justice to the particulars that marked Harry’s life, Claude’s life, Florence’s life, Frank’s life, Lazare’s life, John’s life or anyone else’s, because we don’t have to look for one-to-one particulars—and we don’t have to bray on about the responsibility of memory either (enough people have) but we just can’t walk underneath a sky as blue as this, as nice as this, and as sweet as this without nodding towards time’s cavernous past, too.
Harry Patch begins his autobiography with a question—“Why me?”—and ends it like this:
Can you imagine how it feels to be one of the last ones? Always hearing that another has just died, then another and another, waiting to hear who’s gone and always wondering if you’re next. Well, if they’ve written the obituary, all I can say is that I hope to live long enough that they will have to update it, and more than once! Then I can fade away. Isn’t that what old soldiers are meant to do?
Not quite. Not yet.
Two days after this essay was published, Claude Choules passed away.