John Babcock and the legacy of the ordinary soldier

Robin Rowland on how to preserve the legacy of the ordinary soldier.

There is a long chain of links to wars of the past, a chain that can go back centuries — the legionary, the bowman, the Tommy, the grunt — and links ordinary soldiers to the beginning of history.

John Babcock, who died Feb. 18, 2010, the last Canadian veteran of the First World War, was just such a link.

John Babcock, the last known Canadian veteran of the First World War, died on Feb. 18, 2010, at 109. (Canadian Press)

Babcock enlisted as teenager in 1916. Just 15, he was sent to a "Boys Battalion" — 1,300 youngsters training until they were old enough to fight.

Ninety years later, he expressed regrets about being a "tin soldier" who didn't see combat. "I think if I had a chance, I would have gone to France, taken my chances like the rest of them did," he said in 2007. "A lot of good men got killed."

Babcock and others who were the last surviving veterans of what was called the Great War were, it seems, often embarrassed by the attention they received, especially if they did not personally face the terrible carnage of 1914-18.

There is no reason for embarrassment. They all performed their duty by standing up for their country in the first place and then by putting a human face on what was supposed to be "the war to end all wars" for generations after the armistice was signed.

Too much forgetting

For much of history, even modern history, all too little is known about the ordinary soldier. On almost every cenotaph is carved "Lest we forget." But we do.

There are countless statues to pharaohs, kings, emperors, generals, admirals and even a few warrior bishops. Their names and deeds are recorded in stone, papyrus and books and now on video.

Robin Rowland is the photo editor at CBCNews online. He is also the author of five books, the most recent being The Sonkrai Tribunal, a history of British and Australian POWs on the River Kwai.

Even when there is something etched in stone or bronze about that ordinary soldier, too often we know nothing about the individuals, the names mean nothing to us.

In 330 BC, the army of Alexander the Great fought its way through what is today southeastern Afghanistan, a region that the previous rulers, the Persians, could not control.

Along the Arghandab River, the force paused and Alexander turned a small city called Arachosia into another Alexandria. Today, it is known as Kandahar.

History has recorded time and time again the lives of Alexander and his generals. We know nothing about the individual Macedonian, Greek and Persian soldiers who were in his army, and even less about the Afghan tribes that opposed him.

Statutes of clay

A little more than a century later, in 210 BC, a Chinese emperor named Qin Shi Hsung had terracotta statues made of each individual soldier in his army.

One of Emperor Qin's terracotta warriors. (Reuters)

Emperor Qin created that earthen army for his own glorification, but now, more than two millennia later, we look into those individual faces and wonder. Who was he? Who were his parents? Whom did he love?

It is from the Romans that we first get the names of individual soldiers, mostly on tombstones. Two of the most famous are in a museum in Colchester, England: an officer, Marcus Favonius Facilis, a centurion of the 20th Legion; and an ordinary soldier, Longinus Sdapeze, from the First Cavalry Regiment of Thracians.

What kind of men were they? We know that two people put up the Facilis tombstone, one named Verecundus and, the second, his former slave Noucius. We know that Longinus died at age 40 after 15 years service.

So, a brief glance at the lives of two soldiers.  

It took almost 1,500 years after the fall of Rome, more centuries of kings and emperors, barons and knights, before the world beyond immediate family and friends began to care once again about the ordinary man-at-arms.

That was still an era before women were permitted to serve. But with 19th century technology it was easier to send a letter home or even a posed photograph, in uniform, taken in a studio.

The first mass circulation newspapers were on the streets and war correspondents began to accompany the troops.

With democracies at war, the politicians had to pay attention to the privates as well as the generals.

But it was also around this time that one of the greatest problems for preserving memory of conflict became apparent. It is a phrase heard from the 1860s until today: "My father never spoke about the war."

Honouring memory

Politicians and others talk about "honouring the memory of the fallen." But often those memories are just too horrible, the trauma too great.

Many veterans don't want that kind of memory to be honoured — unless it can be used in the vain hope of preventing future wars or teaching the next generation.

The Vimy memorial, the names of those who fell are carved into the wall. (Associated Press)

Many of the memoirs of the American Civil War were not written until 30 or 40 years later, just into the 20th century, which has made some historians question their value.

A similar pattern can be seen from the Second World War (and Vietnam) as well.

It is a generalization but it could be said that those who had a "good war" contributed to the flood of war books and novels in the 1950s and 1960s, while the others waited until much later in life to write or contribute to oral history.

Time healed some wounds. In other cases, older veterans, with more time on their hands, finally came to tell their stories. Perhaps because their families sat them down.

Stone only hints

History is not etched in stone, the stone only gives hints.

At Vimy Ridge, the names of the hundreds of Canadians soldiers killed and missing in that battle are honoured, carved into the walls.

It is little known in Canada, but at Kranji cemetery in Singapore you will find carved in stone the names of the aircrew (Canadians serving in the RAF and RCAF) who were lost over Southeast Asia during the Second World War.

Visitors to both sites stop and pause and look at name after name. There is little there that tells much more about these men, what kind of humans they were, what were their stories.

If you walk through Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto, you will find memorials to young men killed far away in the Great War, memorials likely set there by grieving parents for sons who lie in one of the Commonwealth gravesites in Europe, perhaps even at Vimy.

There you find great monuments raised by the wealthy as well as smaller headstones in more prosaic family plots.

The memorial to Lawrence Crowe in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery, Toronto. (Robin Rowland/CBC)

One of those larger memorials reflects the sentiments of the already disappearing Victorian and Edwardian age.

The story, told in stone, is simple: "Flight Sub Lieutenant. H. Lawrence Crowe, Royal Navy Air Service, killed while flying on patrol duty off the Devonshire coast, June 22, 1917, Aged 20 years."

His is a classical-style heroic statue, now long neglected, with one hand broken off.

That well-meaning heroic gesture runs counter to the horrors in many memories. Almost every veteran will tell you: "I wasn't a hero."

Who was Lawrence Crowe, aged 20? What happened on June 22, 1917?

How many visitors to Mt. Pleasant even glance at the memorial today?

Stories get lost

To honour those in all the wars past, present and future, we probably should put more than names on stone and have more than a politician's rote recitation, "We honour their service."

Whether it's in a family album (or a family video) or in a national museum, the way to make sure memory doesn't falter, that we never forget, is to make sure that, as much as possible, the human story, such as John Babcock's, is recorded, whether they served on the front lines or in a rear-area camp.

When I was writing a book about prisoners of war held by the Japanese and forced to build the Burma-Thailand Railway during the Second World War, the few men in their eighties who were still living were happy to be interviewed.

Families of those who had died were happy to open up letters, albums and photographs.

On the other hand, when I tracked down someone's family, usually following up official records, there was the look of horror on their faces when they told me, "We threw it all out, we didn't think it was important." And a story was lost.

Today, when a Canadian soldier is killed in Afghanistan, the Department of National Defence, quite rightly, often advises the media, not to contact the family, to please respect their privacy.

But later, after a few weeks, or months, or years, how do we make sure that the names and faces on websites and in newspapers don't become just as anonymous as Alexander's soldiers?

One simple way is to make sure, when the soldier is ready to tell his or her story, that it is it is recorded. Then preserve the papers, the photographs and the souvenirs.   Some of those stories will remain in the family, some may find a home in a local or national museum, library or archives. Some will live on in personal, regimental and memorial websites.

Over the years, inevitably, some of these stories will be lost, material will be thrown out or damaged. Libraries, databases and websites will disappear.

The media moves on to fresher stories and too often even media archives are threatened by budget problems and records are lost.

But if enough of the links in that ancient chain survive, then that will be the best way to honour the soldiers of the past, present and future.