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Babcock John Babcock, Canada's only living First World War veteran, holds up a photo from the war with his wife, Dorothy, at their Spokane, Wash., home, July 18. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Obituary

John Babcock, 1900-2010

Canada's last First World War soldier

Last Updated Feb 18, 2010

CP Canada's last living First World War veteran, John Babcock, licks icing from his fingers as his wife Dorothy, 78, cuts him a piece of birthday cake at their home in Spokane, Wash., July 18, 2007. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

When John Babcock celebrated his 107th birthday in 2007, he received greetings from around the world. The Queen sent a letter of congratulations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave him a tie decorated with red poppies.

They were small tokens of appreciation for the man believed to be the last surviving Canadian veteran of the First World War.

Basking in the glow of all the birthday attention and visitors at his home in Spokane, Wash., his wife Dorothy at his side, Babcock spoke with his usual candour.

"I know I'm going to die some day, so what the hell," he told the Canadian Press. "I try to live a good, clean life and I have a good wife who helps me."

Two years later, Babcock has died. The Prime Minister's Office confirmed his death on Thursday.

"As a nation, we honour his service and mourn his passing," Prime Minister Harper said in a statement issued from Ottawa.

"The passing of Mr. Babcock marks the end of an era," Harper said in the statement. "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."

Regrets of a 'tin soldier'

Yet despite his humility, Babcock has a unique place in Canadian history.

Almost 650,000 Canadians served, and more than 200,000 were killed or wounded, in the First World War. In many ways, the identity of the young country was forged on the bloody battlefields such as Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele and the Somme. Babcock, born on an Ontario farm in 1900, enlisted to join the fray at the tender age of 16. He lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Sydenham, Ont., and arrived in England a few months later.

The truth about his age caught up to him. So in August 1917, Babcock was sent to the Boys Battalion - 1,300 young soldiers training until they were old enough to fight the Germans.

But peace came first - the war ended a few months after Babcock's 18th birthday. He never saw front-line action.

After almost 90 years, he still regrets 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. "A lot of good men got killed."

'I still love Canada'

CP Babcock, shown in this 1920 photo, enlisted as a soldier at the age of 16. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

In the 1920s, Babcock moved the United States and later served in the U.S. Army, becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1946. At the time, dual citizenship was not allowed, so Babcock had to give up his Canadian ties. In 2008, he wrote Harper requesting his citizenship back, a request that was granted. Babcock was sworn in as a citizen in a ceremony at his Washington home on May 13, 2008.

Babcock married Dorothy after the death of his first wife, Elsie, about 30 years ago.

Even in the years just before his death, he continued to get out and about. At 107, he liked to go to his favourite restaurant where he'd flirt with all the waitresses before ordering a burger and fries.

His son, Jack Jr., said his father came across as a polite elderly gentleman with lots of stories to tell, but he was also strong-willed.

"He's humble and bashful about being the last guy and very realistic about it. But you don't do what he's done in his lifetime without getting a little self-assurance," Jack Jr. said in 2008.

At his 107th birthday party, Babcock said he was touched by the birthday wishes. "It means a hell of a lot. It means very much to me because although I'm an American citizen, I still love Canada," he said.

Canada, it would seem, returned the affection.

During an April 2008 visit at his home from Canadian Veterans Affairs Minister Greg Thompson, Babcock mentioned that he'd like to get his Canadian citizenship back. Thompson encouraged him to contact Harper.

Babcock did so immediately, writing a note on the nearest sheet of paper, which happened to be decorated with pictures of American flags and teddy bears, according to a Canwest News report.

"Dear PM," the note said, according to the report. "Could I have my citizenship restored? I would appreciate your help. Thank you, John Babcock."

Thompson presented the note to Harper during a cabinet meeting, and Gov. Gen. Micha�lle Jean agreed to grant Babcock his citizenship.

"We are proud to welcome Mr. Babcock back into the Canadian family and to honour the service he gave our country," Harper said in a release at the time. "He symbolizes a generation of Canadians who, in many ways, were the authors of modern Canadian nationhood."

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