Last veteran

John Babcock, 106, has been living in the United States most of his life and is an American citizen. Babcock also admits to having never served on a battlefield. When the First World War ended with 

an armistice on November 11, 1918, Babcock was training in England.

What does all this mean to Canada?

It means Babcock will not accept a state funeral after his death as a representative of the last remaining Canadian to have served in the First World War.

The Canadian Legion pointed out that Babcock, one of three surviving Canadian Great War veterans, has lived in the U.S. since 1924 and is thus not entitled to a state funeral in this country.

To his credit, Babcock readily acknowledged this. He quickly announced he will not accept the honour that resulted from the passage of a House of Commons motion sponsored by NDP Veterans Affairs critic Peter Stoffer (Sackville-Eastern Shore) last Monday.

MPs unanimously adopted the motion that calls for a state funeral when the last of three surviving Great War veterans passes away. Canada’s other surviving Great War vets are Lloyd Clemett, 106, and Percy Wilson, 105. Wilson also was not involved in direct combat and was in England training when the war ended.

The Globe and Mail reported that  Wilson’s son said the family would be more comfortable with a state funeral 

focused on all First World War veterans rather than just his father.

Clemett’s position has not been reported by the media.

“These three men constitute our only living link to the horrors and triumphs experienced by more than a half-million Canadians who served under arms between 1914 and 1918,” said Rudyard Griffiths, executive director of the Dominion Institute, which first called for the government to adopt the state funeral policy for the last survivor. “Yet, to our national shame, the proud history they embody is fast fading from Canadians’ shared memory.”

It was the Dominion Institute, a national charitable organization devoted to creating awareness of Canadian history, that started an on-line petition that led to the motion in the House of Commons. Between November 6 and the motion on November 21, the institute had collected over 100,000 on-line signatures in 

support of the state funeral.

“By passing a motion to offer a full state funeral ... the Parliament of Canada will allow a grateful nation to pay proper tribute to our last Great War veteran 

on his passing and honour the over 600,000 Canadians he served with 

under arms from 1914-18,” said Griffiths in a press release following the passage of the motion.

The petition and the subsequent motion drew some attention to the role Canadians played in the First World War, but decades later there is little reason to believe it will be enough to create a groundswell of education.

The Dominion Institute’s own surveys reveal a profound lack of knowledge among Canadians about the Great War. Barely a third of this nation’s citizens could even name the Battle of Vimy Ridge in Easter 1917 as a key Canadian victory in the First World War. It was also the first significant victory for the Allies since the trench stalemate had begun.

At the time, the victory at Vimy Ridge was heralded as the coming of age of the nation. Canadians were said to have entered the battle as colonials and emerged with a true national identity. In fact, for  years afterward the grateful nation held annual celebrations of the victory. 

Also, Canada’s most impressive monument to the Great War is found on the crest of the ridge. It is dedicated: 

“To the valour of their

“Countrymen in the Great War

“And in memory of their sixty 

“Thousand dead this monument

“Is raised by the people of Canada”

Inscribed on the ramparts of the memorial are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who were posted as “missing, presumed dead” in France.

The land for the battlefield park, 91.18 hectares (250 acres) in extent, was “the free gift in perpetuity of the French nation to the people of Canada,” according to the Veterans Affairs website.

Eleven thousand tonnes of concrete and masonry were required for the base of the memorial and 5,500 tonnes of “trau” stone were brought from 

Yugoslavia for the pylons and the sculptured figures. Construction of the massive work began in 1925 and 11 years later, on July 26, 1936, King Edward VIII unveiled the monument.

Yet, Vimy was just one battle among many that Canadians fought, including the Somme, Second Ypres, Paschendaele and the Last 100 Days. 

After the Canadian success at Vimy, the entire four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force fell under the command of General Sir Arthur Currie, a 

REALTOR® who proved to be one of best commanders — the best, according to British Prime Minister Lloyd George, who wanted to put him in command of all British troops — among all the Allied forces involved in the conflict. Canadian historians often refer to Currie as Canada’s greatest general ever.

Currie was recently one of 14 “Valiants” honoured during the recent Remembrance Day services in Ottawa. His and the other busts from the conflicts Canadians have fought since 1760 are now found near the National War Memorial.

It should be noted that the Great War was the most costly conflict in Canada’s history, claiming over 60,000 killed and over 172,000 wounded among the 610,000 who served. 

Regardless of whom is honoured as the last veteran of the Great War through a state funeral, the real outcome will be to provide Canadians with the opportunity to express their appreciation for the many who served, fought and died in the cause of freedom. The one hope is that the passing of the last veteran will not mark a disappearance from Canadians’ collective memory of the contributions made by so many in the distant past.