Canada's last WW I veteran dies

John Babcock, Canada's last known First World War veteran, has died at the age of 109, the Prime Minister's Office says.

John Babcock's death at 109 marks 'end of an era'

Canada's last known First World War veteran, John Babcock, has died at age 109, the Prime Minister's Office says.

Born on an Ontario farm in 1900, Babcock enlisted to join the war 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.

John Babcock is shown in a 1920 photo kept at his home in Spokane, Wash. ((Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press))

Because of his age, Babcock wasn't allowed on the front lines. 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. 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."

In the 1920s, Babcock moved to 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.

'I still love Canada'

Babcock married his second wife, Dorothy, after his first wife Elsie died in the late 1970s. Despite his age, he still liked to go to his favourite restaurant where he would flirt with the waitresses before ordering a burger and fries.

His son, Jack Jr. said his father could come across as a polite elderly gentleman with plenty 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."

At his 107th birthday party in 2007, Babcock said he was touched by the good 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.

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 Prime Minister Stephen 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 at a cabinet meeting, and Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean agreed to grant Babcock his citizenship. Canadian officials flew to Babcock's home for an official swearing-in ceremony.

"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."

Tributes pour in

Babcock spent his final years living in Spokane, Wash. On Thursday night, Harper issued a statement in Ottawa mourning his death.

"As a nation, we honour his service and mourn his passing," Harper said. "The passing of Mr. Babcock marks the end of an era."

Babcock was the last link to the 650,000 Canadian men and women who served in the First World War, Harper noted.

"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."

Jean said Babcock always gave the best of himself.

"You know how dear the members of the Canadian Forces and our veterans are to my heart ... May his accomplishments and his example inspire many future generations to serve their nation," the Governor General said in a statement.

'I think it would be nice if all the different people in the world could get along together.'—John Babcock

Rudyard Griffiths of the Historica-Dominion Institute, an organization dedicated to promoting Canadian history, called Babcock "both an individual and a symbol."

"While he didn't serve, he was emblematic of that generation and of a certain kind of feistiness," said Griffiths.

"I know he felt quite proud of the Canadian period of his life," said Duncan Graham, a Korean War veteran whose father served in the First World War. He said Babcock was the last living member of a generation that he and other veterans looked up to.

"I've got great respect for them. The war they fought was completely different from the war I fought, where we had the luxury of tanks and armoured vehicles," he said. "What they went through during the war in the trenches... we didn't have to see what they had to see."

Houchang Hassan-Yari, a professor of international relations at the Royal Military College, said Canadians need to know about the Great War to understand how the country was born.

"Babcock's generation was important because they witnessed a transition for Canada from a member of the British Dominion to an independent state," he said, explaining that Canada's military presence on the international stage helped the country find its own identity.

When once asked what lessons this generation should take from the First World War, Babcock had a simple reply.

"I think it would be nice if all the different people in the world could get along together so we weren't having wars. I don't suppose that'll ever happen, though."

With files from The Canadian Press