19 February 2010

John Babcock, Canada's last First World War vet dies at 109 years old

OTTAWA - He was an unlikely and reluctant figurehead for a generation of heroes, a self-described "tin soldier" whose teenaged zeal for combat conspired to keep him out of the very war that would one day cast him as its sole Canadian survivor.

John Babcock was destined to play a starring role in the First World War. It just came nearly a century later than he might have expected.

Babcock, the last known veteran of Canada's First World War army, died Thursday at the age of 109.

John Babcock (July 10, 2007)

He went in search of military glory at the age of 16, when he tried to sneak his way on to the front lines in France. His ruse was discovered, however, and he never made it to the battlefield.

"I wanted to go to France because I was just a tin soldier," Babcock said in an interview with The Canadian Press in July 2007 at his home in Spokane, Wash.

He was born July 23, 1900 on a farm in Ontario and emigrated to the U.S. in the 1920s.

"I volunteered (for the front lines), but they found out I was underage. If the war had lasted another year I would have fought."

Still, more than 80 years of hindsight had helped to temper that young man's regret over not having faced enemy fire in the trenches of France unlike many of his friends, who never returned.

"I might have got killed," he said matter-of-factly.

Babcock died at his home in his own bed on Thursday afternoon, said his wife Dorothy.

"He wished for this and not (to) go back to the hospital or nursing home," she said in an email to The Canadian Press. "He was a great man with a great sense of humor and loved life. We will all miss him very much. "

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in a statement Thursday announcing Babcock's death, said: "As a nation, we honour his service and mourn his passing."

"The passing of Mr. Babcock marks the end of an era. His family mourns the passing of a great man. Canada mourns the passing of the generation that asserted our independence on the world stage and established our international reputation as an unwavering champion of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean said Babcock always gave the best of himself.

"You know how dear the members of the Canadian Forces and our veterans are to my heart. 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."

"On behalf of all Canadians, we extend our deepest sympathies to his family and many friends who mourn his passing. May his accomplishments and his example inspire many future generations to serve their nation."

Ten per cent of the roughly 600,000 Canadians who enlisted to fight in the First World War died on the battlefields of Europe 170,000 more were wounded.

The war would ultimately claim 15 million civilian and military lives on both sides of the conflict.

"(Babcock) was both an individual and a symbol," said Rudyard Griffiths, of the Historica-Dominion Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting Canadian history. "We should honour his contribution to Canada."

In the days to come, there will no doubt be tributes and ceremonies to mark Babcock's passing. It's hard to say how he would react to the fanfare. Because he never saw action in the war, he was always a little uncomfortable being known as the last surviving First World War veteran.

"I really didn't accomplish very much," Babcock said. "I went there and I did what the people above told me to do."

He said he had heard rumours about the government holding a state funeral for him, but wasn't sure that's an honour he deserves.

"I think it should be for the fellows who spent time in the front lines and were actually in the fighting."

Babcock wanted badly to be right there with them. "I wasn't smart enough to be scared," he explained.

"While he didn't serve, he was emblematic of that generation and of a certain kind of fiestiness," said Griffiths. "I know he felt quite proud of the Canadian period of his life."

Duncan Graham, a Korean War veteran whose father served in the First World War, said Babcock was the last living member of a generation that he and other veterans looked up to.

"I've got great respect for them. The war they fought was completely different from the war I fought, where we had the luxury of tanks and armoured vehicles," he said. "What they went through during the war in the trenches... we didn't have to see what they had to see."

As an underage volunteer, Babcock was stuck digging ditches and doing endless military drills rather than fighting enemy soldiers. But he said he had vivid memories of the war, and the day an army sergeant inspired him to enlist.

"He came and told us about the charge of the light brigade," he said, referring to the recklessly brave British cavalry attack of the Crimean War, immortalized in a famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. "I was really impressed by that."

Frustrated that he had been relegated to loading freight onto army trucks in Halifax, Babcock lied about his age when he answered the call for volunteers to join a "peacetime regiment."

"When they asked me how old I was, I said 18. Well, when we got to England you had to be 19 to go to France," recalled Babcock.

"I was waiting to be 19 and my service record came through, and they found out I was 16, so they put me in the young soldiers' battalion."

Babcock joined 1,300 other underaged soldiers and was drilled eight hours a day, always with an eye on reaching the front. By October 1918, the then 18-year-old Babcock was awaiting training that would send him to the battlefields of France.

That same month, some Canadian soldiers were kicked out of a dance hall in Wales by British Army veterans. Babcock and other members of his battalion decided "to go up there and clean them."

The ensuing brawl, in which one Canadian soldier was bayoneted in the thigh by a British cadet, saw Babcock handed 14 days of house arrest. Before those two weeks were up, the Armistice had been signed and he was on his way home.

Babcock has said that he worried that Canadians today, children especially, aren't learning enough about the First World War.

"They don't know a lot about it. People are always thinking about what they're doing right now," he said, adding that Canadians should take the time to learn from veterans of the World Wars while they still can.

Griffiths shares that concern. Without "living reminders" like Babcock around anymore, he said, he worries that the history of the First World War will fade into obscurity, much like the War of 1812 has.

"The duty not to forget now falls on a generation who has never known war, who's 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)," he said.

Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor of international relations at the Royal Military College, said that Canadians need to know about the Great War to understand how the country was born.

"Babcock's generation was important because they witnessed a transition for Canada from a member of the British Dominion to an independent state," he said, explaining that Canada's new-found military presence on the international stage helped the country find its own identity.

Babcock himself, however, emigrated to the United States in the 1920s and served a brief stint in the U.S. military.

"When he came back to Canada he really didn't have a home to come back to; his father was killed when he was six years old," said his wife.

"He had heard that in the United States the (military) was going to train people in a trade, so he and a couple of other buddies decided to come."

Babcock met his first wife, Elsie, while working as an oil burner service man in San Francisco. The couple moved to Spokane in 1932, raised a son and a daughter, and spent every weekend golfing.

Babcock married his second wife, Dorothy, after Elsie died in the late 1970s.

In September 2006, at the age of 106, he managed to get out for a game of golf. While he lacked the balance to putt, he was still able to drive.

When asked what lessons this generation should take from the First World War, Babcock had a simple reply.

"I think it would be nice if all the different people in the world could get along together so we weren't having wars. I don't suppose that'll ever happen, though."

SOURCE: The Canadian Press (Ottawa, ON) - February 19, 2010.