Nicolaas van Rijn Staff Reporter
John Babcock, Canada’s last World War I veteran, has died at the age of 109.
A 16-year-old when he went in search of military glory, Babcock was the last of the 650,000 men and women Canada recruited to serve in the “war to end all wars.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper saluted Babcock Thursday, paying tribute to “Canada’s last living link to the Great War, which in so many ways marked our coming of age as a nation.”
The men and women who served, Harper said, “paid dearly for the freedom that we and our children enjoy every day.
“Today,” he observed, “they’re all gone.”
Gov.-Gen. Michaëlle Jean, head of the Canadian Forces, also paid tribute to Babcock.
“You know how dear the members of the Canadian Forces and our veterans are to my heart,” she said. “And while I am deeply moved and saddened, I am also very honoured to be the Commander-in-Chief and Governor General to pay final tribute to Mr. Babcock.”
At one point Canada had mooted a state funeral for Babcock, but he demurred, saying that because he never saw active service — because of his tender years he spent his war years loading trucks in Halifax and digging ditches in England — he wasn’t worthy of the honour.
Instead, Babcock — who died at home in Spokane, Wash., on Thursday, where he had lived for many years — will be cremated, and his ashes scattered in the Pacific northwest mountains, as happened when his first wife died, years ago.
“I think his grandkids would probably want to do that,” said his wife Dorothy.
“Jack loved the outdoors, he loved to hike.”
Babcock, who was a few months shy of his 110th birthday, had been housebound since a bout of pneumonia last October.
Recent visitors included the choirmaster from his church, Messiah Lutheran, who brought along a keyboard and a violinist for an impromptu concert, since the Babcocks had missed the concerts at Christmas.
And although he left the country of his birth to become an American citizen decades ago, Babcock was recognized by both countries when he died, after having his Canadian citizenship reinstated in 2008.
“Jack loved Canada,” said Dorothy the day that he died. “His heart was there.”
Babcock’s death leaves behind two other known World War 1 vets: American Frank Buckles and British national Claude Choules, who lives in Australia.
Buckles, 108, was just 16 when he lied and signed up as an ambulance driver in the U.K. and France. Following the Armistice, he helped return prisoners of war to Germany.
Choules, 108, is believed to be the last vet to have served in both World Wars. He joined the navy at 14 and became a seaman in the Royal Navy. He was 17 when he saw action on the North Sea. He joined the Royal Australian Navy in 1926 and was in service for 30 years.
His parents, James and Anna, had nine other children, all of whom predeceased Babcock. Because his father died in a logging accident when John was 6, he went to live with relatives and didn’t receive much schooling.
The blue-eyed teen — who stood just 5’4’’ — signed up for the Canadian military in Kingston. Though he tried to pass himself off as 18, it wasn’t long before authorities twigged to his real age, 16, and put him to work unloading military trucks in Halifax. Lying about his age again, he got on a troop transport to England.
“When they asked me how old I was, I said 18,” said Babcock in an interview a few years ago. “Well ... you had to be 19 to go to France.” While he was waiting for his pretend 19th birthday, official papers arrived that listed his actual age, so he was sent to train with 1,300 other underage soldiers.
By October 1918, having finally reached the age of majority, Babcock was eagerly awaiting deployment.
Instead, after he and a group of fellow soldiers decided to defend Canadian honour by taking on a group of British troops in a bar brawl, Babcock spent 14 days of house arrest.
Unfortunately for Babcock, the Armistice was signed during those two weeks, and he never saw combat.
Decades later, he counted his blessings.
“I might have got killed,” he told an interviewer matter-of-factly.
In 1921, he moved to the States and joined the U.S. Army and fell in love with the West Coast. After being stationed in Ft. Louis and the Vancouver Barracks, he settled in Oakland with his first wife, Elsie. The two were married for 45 years and had two children, Jack Jr. and Sandra.
In 1932, the family moved to Spokane, where Babcock worked in the heating and plumbing business. In the late 1970s, after Elsie died, Babcock married Dorothy, a nurse 29 years his junior. Between his two children and her two sons, the couple had 16 grandchildren and a number of great-grandchildren as well.
“We had a wonderful time together,” said Dorothy on Thursday. “I’m so happy to have taken care of him in his last years.”
“We should honour (Babcock’s) contribution to Canada,” said Rudyard Griffith, executive director of the Dominion Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting Canadian history.
“The duty not to forget now falls on a generation who has…been separated from the history of the Great War by a period of going on 90 years. I think there is a danger (that people will forget).”
France and Germany both lost their last WWI veterans in 2008, with the deaths of Lazare Ponticelli, 110, and Erick Kastner, 107.
Now the duty of Canadians, say other vets, is to never forget the sacrifice of Babcock and those 650,000 other Canadian men and women who donned their country’s uniform for the Great War, as it was long known.
Remembrance now mostly lives on through Remembrance Day, the Nov. 11 commemoration that recognizes those who fought in all of Canada’s wars and conflicts.
But those veterans, too, are passing on.
“When all the vets are dead, it doesn’t have the same meaning, because it’s an extraordinarily personalized ceremony of the generation who were scarred by it,” says Patrick Brennan, a University of Calgary historian who specializes in the First World War.
Click to view image: 'Babcock'
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