Canadians from across the country and overseas took time to send Internet messages and sign special Books of Reflection as the last known living connection to the frightful events of the First World War came to an end. Jack Babcock, 109, the last known Canadian veteran of that war, died peacefully at home in Spokane, Wash., Feb. 18.
“The First World War is a defining part of the Canada we know today and it is a legacy that must be preserved for generations to come,” said Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn. “While we have lost our last direct link to the First World War, we will continue to encourage young Canadians to remember and understand our proud military history and heritage.”
Blackburn was speaking at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in announcing events to be held April 9 to pay tribute to all those who served in First World War. Ceremonies were to be held at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France and at the Canada Memorial in London, England. As well, Books of Reflection were established at the war museum, Rideau Hall and in the provincial capitals. Veterans Affairs Canada established an Internet connection to convey condolences at www.vac-acc.gc.ca/remembers.
“Mr. Babcock was one of 650,000 Canadian men and women who served in the Canadian Forces during the First World War,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper. “They paid dearly for the freedom that we and our children enjoy every day. Today they are all gone. However, their voices and stories live on.”
It was the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade that inspired a 15-year-old John Babcock to sign up for war. They were recited by a recruiting officer touring around Eastern Ontario in search of new volunteers to fill the frightening shortage of men on the front lines. Babcock could still recite parts of the poem late in life.
Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them,
Volley’d and thunder’d,
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell,
Rode the six hundred.
Born July 23, 1900, Babcock was the eighth of 10 children on a farm near Sydenham, Ont., north of Kingston. He and an older brother were first recruited in 1915. Even though he gave his correct date of birth when he signed his enlistment papers on Feb. 4, 1916, his “apparent age” is listed as 18. He was fair-haired and stood five feet, four and half inches. He was assigned to the 146th Overseas Battalion and was sent to Halifax by train.
Once in Halifax he was told to step aside when the men were boarding a ship for overseas. He ended up moving freight on the dock until a call came for 50 men to go as reinforcements for the Royal Canadian Regiment. He volunteered, saying he was 18, and sailed for England. He was stationed in Sussex where once again his real age was discovered. He would train for battle alongside other underage Canadian soldiers until word of the Armistice came.
At the time he had been involved in a fight between Canadian and British soldiers. One Canadian soldier ended up with a bayonet in the thigh. Babcock was put under 14 days’ house arrest, but the war was over before he served his time.
Back in Canada, he had trouble finding regular work and shortly after left for the United States. He served in U.S. Army for a while and then returned to civilian life, taking work as an oil burner service man in San Francisco. It was there that he met his first wife, Elsie. The couple moved to Spokane in 1932 and raised a son and a daughter.
Elsie died in the 1970s and he married his second wife, Dorothy, who was 28 years his junior. He continued to work for his son, Jack, Jr. in a waterworks equipment business until he retired at age 87.
He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1946. However, late in life he did miss his country of birth. As the number of First World War veterans dwindled, he received more attention. Then-Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson went to Spokane to present him with the Minister of Veterans Affairs’ Commendation on April 19, 2008.
It was during the visit that Babcock expressed his desire to become a Canadian citizen again. Thompson suggested that he write to the Prime Minister. At that point, Babcock took a sheet of paper and wrote: “Dear PM, Could I have my Canadian citizenship restored? I would appreciate your help. Thank you, John Babcock.”
Thompson delivered the message to Prime Minister Harper during a Cabinet meeting and Harper acted on it right away. “I think everyone really focused on the fact that there was some level of urgency, given his age, and wanted to get it done as quickly as possible,” Thompson told Canwest News Service.
Other honours followed. He was given the title of patriarch of the Royal Canadian Regiment, his unit while overseas.
The Royal Canadian Legion honoured him with an honorary life membership. In October 2008, Dominion President Wilf Edmond and Dominion Command Administration Officer Danny Martin went to Spokane to present it to him. While there, they videotaped Babcock passing the torch.
That clip was shown at the Remembrance Day ceremony held at the National War Memorial on Nov. 11 that year. In the clip Babcock said, “We must never forget our fallen comrades. I pass this torch of remembrance to my comrades. Hold it high.”
Waiting at the base of the memorial were four men, a representative veteran of the Second World War, a veteran of the Korean War, a veteran of deployments to the Golan Heights and Sinai deserts and a veteran of Canada’s current operations in Afghanistan.
“I didn’t do a damn bit of fighting. I signed up and I would have gone to France if I could have, but they put me in the young soldiers’ battalion and they drilled the hell out of us. They drilled us for eight hours a day and I mean drilled us,” he told Edmond.
Babcock did draw a disability pension form Veterans Affairs Canada for hearing loss. He attributed his health to the physical training he received in both Canadian and American armies and his general lifestyle. He didn’t drink much and stopped smoking a long time ago. He continued to golf well past his 100th birthday.
He was articulate and in good health until last fall when he contracted pneumonia and had a blocked bile duct. He spent a few weeks in a veterans hospital and then came home where Dorothy looked after him.
Babcock had declined an offer from the Canadian government for a state funeral, saying he didn’t think he deserved it since he hadn’t seen action in the trenches. A private funeral was held in Spokane on Feb. 27. Blackburn and General Walter Natynczyk, the chief of defence staff, attended along with representatives from the Royal Canadian Regiment.
Blackburn presented Dorothy with the Maple Leaf flag that flew over the Peace Tower on the day that he died.
Dorothy said that his ashes would be scattered in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest.