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Canada's last known Great War vet dies


By Ken Meaney, Canwest News Service

February 18, 2010 10:02 PM



First World War veteran John Babcock, seen here in February 2008, has died, the Prime Minister's Office announced Thursday, Feb. 18. He was 109. Babcock, who enlisted at 15, was the last remaining First World War veteran for Canada.

Photograph by: Brian J Gavriloff, Edmonton Journal


The last known First World War veteran who served Canada, John Babcock, has died at the age of 109, ending a link to the era when Canada came of age as a nation.


Babcock, who enlisted at 15, never saw battle.


Underage when he joined the 146th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Sydenham, Ont., he arrived in England a few months later and was transferred to reserve battalions.


A Kitchener, Ont., farm boy when he enlisted, he ended up with the Boys Battalion in 1917, waiting until he turned 18 to go to the front lines. The war ended first, however.


In a statement released late Thursday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said: "I was deeply saddened to learn today of the death of John Babcock, Canada's last known First World War veteran.


"On behalf of all Canadians, I would like to extend my sincere condolences to Mr. Babcock's family and friends. As a nation, we honour his service and mourn his passing," he said.


"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."


Babcock himself never dreamt he'd become a national symbol.


But on Nov. 11, 2008, he symbolically passed a torch via video link from Spokane, Wash., where he made his home, to a Second World War veteran at the national Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa. Then the flame was handed, in turn, to a Korean War vet, to a retired peacekeeper and to a soldier who had returned from Afghanistan.


"We must never forget our fallen comrades," Babcock said at the time. "I pass this torch of remembrance to my comrades. Hold it high."


Born on July 23, 1900, Babcock was one of 650,000 Canadian men and women who served in the Canadian Forces during the First World War.


"In honouring his service and mourning his passing, we honour the proud history of our country and pay tribute to all those who fought and died for Canada," Harper said.


Babcock was more modest about his wartime record.


"My service didn't amount to much," he told the Ottawa Citizen in an interview just before Remembrance Day in 2003.


"I enlisted when I was 15 1/2 years old. They were hard up for men then. They didn't have the draft yet and they were relying on people enlisting."


It wasn't long before they discovered his lie.


"They said how old are ya? I said 18," he recalled. "So I went to England. I was in the 26th reserve. When my service record came through, though, they found out I was only 16. With 1,300 men underaged in the Canadian Army, they put them in the young soldiers' battalion."


In interviews, the man known to friends and family as Jack credited his military training for instilling in him the values of discipline and honesty.


In later years, he was much sought after by the media and shared his experience with youth in schools, to ensure that the contribution of those who served their country is remembered for all time.


"Babcock is our last personal connection to a remarkable generation of Canadian heroes," Harper's statement added.


For the keepers of Canadian heritage, such as Marc Chalifoux, the fading away of the last soldiers who served during the war — a prelude to the eventual eclipse of the entire generation that lived through the 1914-18 conflict — presents a profound challenge for Canada's collective memory.


"That living page of history has largely passed us by now," Chalifoux, executive vice-president of the Toronto-based Historica-Dominion Institute, a leading promoter of Canadian identity, said in an interview with Canwest News Service last November on the eve of Remembrance Day.


"Even the best textbook is ink and paper. Having someone in the flesh, who can say in their own words, 'When I was your age,' or 'I saw this,' or 'We did that' — that's what makes history come alive."


Babcock has earned a special place in the pages of Canada's past, and although he did not see action in the war, Chalifoux and fellow history advocate Rudyard Griffiths — founder of the newly merged Dominion Institute and author of Who We Are: A Citizen's Manifesto — have repeatedly urged the Canadian government to mark his passing with a national period of commemoration.


Babcock himself has said he would prefer a simple family memorial service to the state funeral that had been proposed for Canada's last Great War soldier.


However his death is marked, Babcock will soon take his place in the national lore alongside Canadians such Provo Wallis — the Halifax-born naval hero who outlived all other combatants from the War of 1812 — and George Ives, the last veteran of the Boer War.


Some of Babcock's recollections of the First World War can be found at a Veterans Affairs website.


"It may become necessary for a young man or woman to join the military to defend their country," he says at one point. "I hope countries think long and hard before engaging in war, as many people get killed. What a waste . . . not to mention the relatives who are left to mourn."


In some ways Babcock lived his life backwards.


He finally received his high school diploma at the age of 95. When he was 103, he was considering taking a college course.


When he returned to Canada after the war, he worked as a labourer in Ontario and Saskatchewan before moving to the U.S. where he joined the U.S. army in 1921.


He left in 1924 and became an electrician and moved to Spokane in 1934.


Married twice, Babcock met his first spouse, Elsie, in Oakland . The two were married for 44 years before she died. They had two children, a boy and a girl.


Later, he worked in the oil business and then moved on to natural gas before operating his own business as a mechanical contractor. At the end of his career, he worked for his son's waterworks equipment wholesale business and didn't retire until he was 87.


He married his second wife, Dorothy, in 1976.


Funeral arrangements have not been announced.


With files from Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service, Ottawa Citizen

© Copyright © Canwest News Service


Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Canada+last+known+Great+dies/2583337/story.html#ixzz0fx2D0x3D

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