Symbol of a generation

John Foster “Jack” Babcock, the last Canadian veteran of the First World War, died recently at age 109. His passage symbolically brings to an end the last surviving link to the Canadian Expeditionary Force of the First World War, but his passing should not end the remembrance of the era when men and women went overseas to fight for “King and Country” in the name of freedom.   

Babcock’s family abided by the Great War veteran’s last wishes and did not allow the Canadian government to hold a state funeral in his honour. The reasons why he refused the honour are his own, but Babcock acknowledged he was just one among many who enlisted.

Babcock further recognized he had been living in the United States since 1924 as an American citizen, and only recently had his Canadian citizenship reinstated — the one honour from the Canadian government he willingly accepted. 

Actually, Canadians of the First World War era were officially British citizens rather than Canadian citizens. It was only in 1947 that official Canadian citizenship became a reality through an act of the Canadian Parliament.

Babcock also admitted 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.

When the importance of Babcock as the last Great War veteran standing became generally known in 2006, the modest man immediately announced he would 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).

MPs unanimously adopted the motion calling for a state funeral when the last Great War veteran passed away. When the legislation was passed, Canada’s other surviving Great War veterans were Lloyd Clemett and Percy Wilson. Wilson also was not involved in direct combat and was in England training when the war ended.

At the time, 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 was not 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 (now the Historica-Dominion Institute, after the Historica Foundation of Canada and the Dominion Institute merged), 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, 2006, 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.

Upon hearing of Babcock’s death, the Historica-Dominion Institute renewed its call for a state funeral, but when news of the Babcock family’s decision was made known, the institute announced it would respect their decision and offer its condolences. 

Babcock’s long life allowed Canadians to share his experiences as an under-aged soldier serving in the Great War. An excellent interview was conducted with Babcock prior to his death and televised repeatedly on the History Channel  — most recently just after the announcement of his passing.

During the interview, Babcock said his reasons for enlisting were to escape poverty and for the sake of adventure. Fortunately for the young recruit — he was 15 years old — he never saw the killing fields of Belgium and France where industrialized warfare slaughtered millions of soldiers and civilians. 

Most of his life as a soldier was spent performing monotonous drilling in a “youth battalion” in preparation for the time he would come of age and be eligible to potentially add his name to the casualty list.

In hindsight, Babcock considered himself extremely lucky not to have served on the front lines. He said what everyone should be honouring are those who did and made the supreme sacrifice. 

The Battle of Vimy Ridge in Easter 1917 was a key Canadian victory in the First World War — the first significant victory for the Allies since the trench stalemate had begun — which resulted in the death of 3,598 Canadian soldiers and the wounding of another 7,004. 

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 a grateful nation held annual celebrations of the victory. 

Canada’s most impressive monument to the Great War is found on the crest of the ridge. 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.” Yet, Vimy was just one battle among many that Canadians fought, including the Somme, Second Ypres, Paschendaele and the Last 100 Days. 

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. 

While the last veteran of the Great War will not be honoured by a state funeral, his passing provided 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.