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Hold It High

Jack Babcock passes the torch. [VIDEO CAPTURES: VETERANS AFFAIRS CANADA]

Jack Babcock passes the torch.

It is hard to say that a Remembrance Day ceremony could have a star, but this one did.

When Canada’s last remaining First World War veteran, Jack Babcock, popped up on the big screens surrounding the National War Memorial in downtown Ottawa, the crowd—some 25,000 strong—reacted with the kind of excited applause that just doesn’t normally happen at such a solemn ceremony.

They were overjoyed to see the old soldier. And the part Babcock played, of passing on the torch of remembrance, was as important as it was appreciated.

Tuesday, Nov. 11th, 2008, was a bitingly cold and cloudy day in the nation’s capital, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone too much. The veterans, young and old, seated closest to the memorial took turns struggling with the situation: they struggled to stand, they struggled to stay warm, they struggled to see, but they didn’t complain.

Veterans stand proudly  during the ceremony. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Veterans stand proudly during the ceremony.

Beyond the veterans were the ranks of Canadian Forces soldiers, Royal Military College cadets, diplomats, and the thousands who braved the crowds and the cold to take part.

Behind the crowds up on Parliament Hill, the big guns of the 30th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, kept going off, blasting noise and the smell of cordite across the open, windy square. Soon it started to snow, just a little.

The ceremony began right on time. After the last post, the lament and the moment of silence, Dominion President Wilf Edmond read the Act of Remembrance in English, followed by the Legion’s Honorary Grand President Charles Belzile, who read the act in French. Then a first: Canadian Aboriginal veteran Tom Eagle strode to the microphone and, after solemnly holding up a large feather, read a symbolic version of the act in an aboriginal language.

Just as Eagle finished, four grey CF-18 jets from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron thundered overhead in what seemed to be a perilously tight formation. Right above the memorial, one of the jets pulled up tightly and blasted into the clouds to complete the vaunted ‘missing-man formation.’ It was a brief, but astonishing performance.

Petty Officer First Class Brian Rainbow (front),  Flight Sergeant Paras Satija (left) and Master Warrant Officer Shawn Claire. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Petty Officer First Class Brian Rainbow (front), Flight Sergeant Paras Satija (left) and Master Warrant Officer Shawn Claire.

Soon it was time for Babcock’s turn. The idea was that he would pass on a torch of remembrance through several generations of Canadian veterans in order that it be placed in the hands of a modern-day soldier.

When Babcock’s name and age were announced, a delighted murmur rippled around the crowd. And when he appeared on the huge screens encircling the war memorial the crowd erupted with applause, unmistakably happy to see Babcock looking hale and hearty in his Vimy 1917-2007 Birth of a Nation T-shirt and a Legion cardigan with a little Royal Canadian Regiment pin. “We must never forget our fallen comrades,” he said in his deep voice. “I pass this torch of remembrance to my comrades.”

The parade marches off. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

The parade marches off.

He held the torch, raised it, and said into the camera: “Hold it high.”

Waiting at the base of the memorial to receive the torch were four men standing proudly in their respective uniforms. The first recipient of the torch was Second World War veteran George Dunlop, a Royal Canadian Hussar who landed just after D-Day and fought his way through France, before taking part in the liberation of Holland.

Dunlop turned and passed the torch to Korea Veterans Association of Canada national President Al Tobio, who served during the Korean War as a stretcher-bearer with 25 Field Ambulance. Without pause, Tobio turned and passed the torch to James O’Brien, a veteran of several deployments to the Golan Heights and Sinai Desert, who was representing the Canadian Association of Veterans in United Nations Peacekeeping (CAVUNP).

For the final handoff, O’Brien turned to Sergeant Randy Keirstead, a Royal Canadian Dragoon wearing the now-familiar desert tan combat fatigues the Canadian Forces use in Afghanistan. Keirstead carried the torch forward and placed it boldly in its stand, as if he were responding to the commandment to hold it high, as if he were answering  the question of whether today’s modern veterans can carry the legacy of Canada’s military history and answering it with a resounding, ‘yes we can.’

The torch is passed from Al Tobio to James O’Brien. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

The torch is passed from Al Tobio to James O’Brien.

In 2006, Keirstead spent months on the very front lines of the war in Afghanistan. Arriving in October as a replacement, he took part in big and small operations alike, from the daily grind of defending little bases and strongpoints in Panjwai to big battle group endeavours like Operation Baaz Tsuka, Kierstead saw it all. And as he says, he couldn’t have been prouder to play such a pivotal role in this historic ceremony.

Also adding greatly to the ceremony were Brigadier-General, The Reverend David C. Kettle, Chaplain General to the Canadian Forces and Rabbi Reuven P. Bulka, Honorary Chaplain of Dominion Command.

Just after the conclusion of the prayers and the Ottawa Children’s Choir’s touching version of In Flanders Fields, the ceremony’s most important guests placed the first wreaths.

Sergeant Randy Keirstead deposits the torch. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Sergeant Randy Keirstead deposits the torch.

Governor General Michaëlle Jean placed her wreath. Prime Minister Stephen Harper placed his. Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk placed his. And Silver Cross Mother Avril Stachnik placed hers on behalf of all Canadian mothers whose sons died in the service of their country. Placing a wreath on behalf of the Legion was Dominion President Wilf Edmond. Also placing a wreath was Ontario Command President George O’Dair.

Placing a wreath on behalf of Canadian youth were this year’s national senior winners of the Legion’s annual literary and poster contests. Silvia Alvarado, the colour poster winner from Ottawa; Monika Stahlstrom, the black-and-white poster winner from Surrey, B.C.; Katrina Elissa van Kessel, the essay winner from Elliot Lake, Ont., and Andrea Murray, poetry winner from Benalto, Alta.

Silver Cross Mother Avril Stachnik, Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Silver Cross Mother Avril Stachnik, Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Front and centre to help were the three recipients of the Legion Cadet of the Year awards. Sea cadet Petty Officer First Class Brian Rainbow from Ladner, B.C.; army cadet Master Warrant Officer Shawn Claire from Victoria, B.C., and air cadet Flight Sergeant Paras Satija from Campbellton, N.B.

On the Friday before Remembrance Day, Stachnik was introduced to Canadians as the Silver Cross Mother for 2008. The ceremony took place at the memorial centre inside Ottawa’s Beechwood Cemetery, which is where Sergeant Shane Stachnik is buried alongside many other CF members in the National War Cemetery.

Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk and Dominion President Wilf Edmond. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk and Dominion President Wilf Edmond.

The ceremony was short but well attended. General Natynczyk was there, as was Minister of Veterans Affairs Greg Thompson.

Legion Dominion President Wilf Edmond did the honour of introducing Stachnik to the assembled crowd and media. “Since 1919 the Silver Cross has been presented to mothers and widows who lost their loved ones,” said Edmond. “And since the first national Remembrance Day ceremony in 1931, when The Royal Canadian Legion first conducted the ceremony, its mainstay has been the Silver Cross Mother. No other bond is more heartfelt than that of a mother and her lost child,” Edmond continued. “So we choose the mother with great care, because we know it entails a great deal of courage and a great deal of commitment to fill the role.”

Many veterans were moved to tears by the event. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Many veterans were moved to tears by the event.

Stachnik spoke about what this all meant to her. “I am honoured and overwhelmed to have been chosen as the Silver Cross Mother. From the first call I received in January I didn’t hesitate, and to make the announcement here where my son is buried makes it most significant. I know my son would be proud of me.”

Stachnik then paused for a moment before continuing. “Yes, I will be thinking of my own son when I place the wreath, but I will also be thinking of those who died in our nation’s defence, because I know how it felt when the word came. It doesn’t matter how one feels about war, but you have to support our troops at home and abroad. They gave everything they had and deserve to be remembered as the heroes they are.”

Afterwards, Stachnik and her daughter Deanna spent some time at Shane’s grave. He died on Sept. 3, 2006, during the first day of Operation Medusa. An engineer, Shane was at the front end of Charles Company’s ill-fated assault on a well-fortified enemy position and was killed instantly when a large-calibre weapon—probably an 82-mm recoilless rifle round—exploded on the turret of the light-armoured vehicle he was riding in.

Children place their poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Children place their poppies on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

On the Monday before the ceremony, the Silver Cross Mother joined the cadets and students to tour the Parliament Buildings, the Canadian War Museum and at a special luncheon put on by the Legion in their honour.

During a visit to the Parliament Building’s Memorial Chamber, Stachnik stood silently and gazed at her son’s name, inscribed in a book of remembrance. In a brief ceremony conducted in the Memorial Chamber, House of Commons deputy Sergeant-at-Arms André Boivin presented Stachnik with a framed replication of the page with her son’s name inscribed.

Seated veterans converse before the ceremony. [PHOTO: METROPOLIS STUDIO]

Seated veterans converse before the ceremony.

Meeting Jack Babcock

In early October, Legion Dominion Command President Wilf Edmond and Dominion Command administrator Danny Martin travelled to Spokane, Wash., to spend time with Jack Babcock and his wife, Dorothy.

Babcock is not only Canada’s only surviving First World War veteran, at 108-years-old and still cogent, he is a marvel. During the course of their visit, Babcock would recount all manner of stories from his war service, everything from getting in trouble for breaking important equipment to romancing a young Scottish girl to getting seasick and spending days without eating.

While Edmond and Martin had a practical goal to their mission—to videotape Babcock passing the torch for the national Remembrance Day ceremony—they were there to honour Babcock and show their respects on behalf of all Legion members.

Jack Babcock and Dominion President Wilf Edmond chat during the visit to Spokane, Wash. [PHOTO: DOMINION COMMAND]

Jack Babcock and Dominion President Wilf Edmond chat during the visit to Spokane, Wash.

In the bright little room of the house where Babcock lives, Edmond began the meeting with small ceremony. “It is a distinct pleasure to be here to meet you and greet you,” Edmond said to Babcock, who was seated on the couch. “We are honoured as an organization for veterans to be able to present you with this distinguished honorary life membership award.”

Edmond then produced a large plaque, heavily engraved and then made to hand it to Babcock before having second thoughts. “It’s kind of heavy,” Edmond said.

“Just put it on my lap,” replied Babcock.

Edmond gingerly reached down to place the plaque on Babcock’s knees.

“And here’s the card signifying that you are a life member, and a lapel pin as well,” said Edmond.

“Oh thank you,” replied Babcock, reaching up to take them.

Edmond then gave Babcock several hats, including one from Vimy, which matched the shirt Babcock was wearing. The presentation of gifts didn’t end there. He was presented with a crest, another lapel pin, poppy pin, the first specially minted 90th anniversary quarter, and the special Armistice silver dollar.

“Comrade, it is my pleasure, and I thank you for my freedom,” said Edmond, reaching out to shake Babcock’s hand.

Soon the group, which included representatives from Veterans Affairs Canada, got down to the business of capturing Babcock on film. “We must never forget our fallen comrades,” said Babcock. “I pass this torch of remembrance to my comrades. Hold it high.”

With the business done, Babcock reminisced for a while about his memories of the war; and while still sharp, he does have some trouble remembering exact details of these events. He was 15—out chopping wood at his brother’s place—when the army recruiters came around. “There was a sergeant and a lieutenant who came. I don’t know whether the lieutenant came or not, but there was a sergeant who came and he told us about the charge of the light brigade.

“‘The cannons they volleyed and thundered,’” Babcock remembered the sergeant saying. “And they got to the Russians, they killed them with their sabres, some of them. But they lost a lot of men. I imagine they lost about two-thirds of their men.”

Even now the story still holds power for Babcock, who became wistful, repeating the phrase “the cannons they volleyed and thundered,” again.

Babcock said he decided then and there he would join. The next Monday he walked some 13 miles to the local depot in Sydenham, Ont. “Later we went to Kingston, Ont., and drilled in the armoury. Then we went to Val-Carter. Which the Frenchmen call Valcartier,” he recalled with a hearty laugh.

Babcock remembers getting issued “the old Ross rifle,” the infamously in­effective weapon the Canadians carried for a short time during the war. “It was a clumsy rifle,” said Babcock, describing some of the problems with the rifle’s handling. “But it would shoot all right.

“I went overseas on the California (a ship), and I landed in Liverpool. I think we were about nine days going over…. I was seasick both times (there and back), and I laid up on (the) deck. I’m not a good sailor,” he joked. “I just laid up there until I got over it. I hadn’t eaten for several days. And then when I finally got over it I went down to the mess hall and ate at least two men’s rations.”

In England, Babcock was deemed too young for immediate deployment to France, so he was placed in a holding unit along with many other underage soldiers. “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 this young soldiers’ battalion and they drilled the hell out of us. They drilled us for eight hours a day and I mean drilled us.”

To prove his point, Babcock sang an old marching song they’d taught him.

He also recalled his time in the bugle band. “I’m tone deaf. I never learned to blow the goddamn bugle. (Heavy laugh). We’d march around at the head of the thing and I would just put the bugle up to my face. I couldn’t blow the goddamn thing but I went through the motions.”

A little later during the visit—with Babcock growing increasingly tired—Edmond and Martin moved to wrap it up, and let the old soldier get some rest. “Mr. Babcock, it’s been a real honour to be in your presence,” said Martin, concluding the meeting. “It has been an honour to talk to someone that’s been in the First World War—the last surviving veteran.”

Babcock was then handed a Legion hat which read in block letters the word VETERAN. Babcock struggled with it for a second but managed to slip it on and sat kind of happily, waiting to see what comes next. A more perfect hat would be hard to find.

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