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Last First World War veteran shares war stories

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Saw this in the Maple Leaf.

Last First World War veteran shares war stories
Jack Babcock, 107, recounts attempts to get to the front as an underage soldier
by Sgt Dennis PowerDownload article

SPOKANE,Washington — Jack Babcock is Canada’s only surviving veteran of the First World War. Though he’s proud to be recognized, he’s a little embarrassed by all the attention he has gotten lately, and he’ll tell you it’s because “I didn’t get to fight.”

He did his best to get to the trenches in France but, after nearly three years in uniform, he made it only as far as England. The reason, which he gives up with some reluctance, is that he was only 15 years old when he signed up. The fact that he made it as far as England is a testament to his determination to fight. It took a lot of courage and ingenuity to sneak past numerous commanders on the journey to France each time it was discovered that he was underage for service.

Getting himself ready for another interview, Mr. Babcock sits back on his favourite couch in the living room of his Spokane,Washington home. Despite 107 years, clear blue eyes peer out from beneath white brows, and he takes a deep breath as he decides where to begin.

John (Jack) Henry Foster Babcock was born on the family farm outside Sydenham, Ont. on July 23, 1900. He was born the middle child of five, with a brother and three sisters. The family lived comfortably on the farm and had little to do with town life. Sydenham was about 11 kilometres away and Kingston another 20. The sprawling 350 acres provided plenty of crops, and his father also operated a very successful wood milling operation.

When Mr. Babcock was six years old, a tragic event set the course for an uncertain future in what had been an almost idyllic life. His father was cutting down an ash tree near the family home.When the tree came down, part of a dead cedar next to it broke off and fell, crushing his father’s shoulder.

“They brought my father into the house wrapped in a horse blanket,” Mr. Babcock explains sadly, drawing on a memory that is as vivid as if the event had happened yesterday.“He was in a lot of pain. He said,‘roll me over’, and then he said, ‘roll me back’. He lived for about two hours. Then he took in a deep breath, and he was gone.”

After his father’s death, economics eventually forced the family to break up. The farm was sold and the children went to live with different relatives. Mr. Babcock’s mother took work that was available.

Among a number of places he lived, Mr. Babcock stayed with the family that had bought the farm. “They never really seemed to like me,” he says, “and I guess I didn’t care much for them.” He worked on the farm and at the mill all day. He was usually too tired at the end of the day to study so, at 14, he finished with school to focus on making a living.

Joining up
In January of 1916, Mr. Babcock was in a nearby village, Perth Row, when he took an interest in some recruiters for the Canadian Army who were regaling passers-by with stories of soldiers and glory. “They spoke about the British Cavalry and the charge of the Light Brigade,” he says.“How they charged the Russian guns and sabred the gunners. I was impressed, and I signed up.”

The call for patriotism, the lure of adventure and the prospect of money were the three great motivators that resulted in more than 600 000 men signing up to fight by the end of the war.

“I never thought anything would happen to me,” he continues.“I would get a dollar and ten cents a day – good money. On the farm, I was only getting fifty cents a day.” Though he passed his medical exam after enlisting, he was unable to pass himself off as a 19-year-old. The medical officer recorded his ‘apparent age’ as 18, which kept Mr. Babcock in the Army. He spent the next few months training with other soldiers as the newly formed 146th Overseas Battalion built to a strength of about 1 050 men.

In June 1916, the battalion moved to Camp Valcartier, north of Québec City, to continue training. In early autumn, after undergoing another physical, Jack was again declared fit but underage for service. About 40 other soldiers in the battalion were also found unsuitable for service for various reasons. Their names were posted as the battalion prepared to leave for France. Mr. Babcock’s name was not on the list, so he grabbed his pack and fell in with the troops as they moved to Halifax.

In Halifax, his company commander was standing on the gangplank when he attempted to board. Knowing Mr. Babcock was underage, he waved him off and had him sent to nearby Wellington Barracks to work at general duties.

Two weeks later, a call went out for 50 volunteers to join The Royal Canadian Regiment (RCR), already in France. Mr. Babcock jumped at the opportunity, lied again about his age and soon sailed for England.

In England, Mr. Babcock was assigned to the 26th Reserve Battalion camped near Folkstone, Kent. Most of the soldiers were veterans from the RCR and Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, waiting to return to France. He spent most of his time doing drill and night manoeuvres, learning what he could from the veterans through their actions and stories.

By late 1916, the troops in France were engaged in gruesome battles resulting in enormous numbers of casualties. In Canada, people were becoming disillusioned with the war and increasingly alarmed at reports of underage soldiers in the front lines. More than 1 300 underage soldiers (younger than 19) were found serving in overseas units. These boys were subsequently pulled from their units and sent to Bexhill-on-Sea in England to form the Young Soldiers Battalion.

“I remember that about a third of the boys had been to France and they were glad to be back [in England],” Mr. Babcock explains. “Who the hell would want to be shot at all the time?”

That was not the end of their service. They were held in England, and continued training until they reached 19 and were eligible to serve in France. “Because we were young,” he says, “we had better food than the other soldiers, but I didn’t care much for it. And when we had time off, we could go into town or a place called ‘tin-town’ for something to eat and for dances.”

He remembers that when the young soldiers of his battalion met older soldiers who had served in France, they were always treated with respect. He also speaks well of his sergeants and officers. Most of them had been wounded in France and were training the young soldiers as they recuperated.

“When you were within six months of becoming 19, you went to D Company and they got you ready to go to France,” Mr. Babcock says. “Nobody was scared to go to France.We knew we’d be shot at, but we didn’t know any better.” Although he did everything he could to get there, the opportunity never came. The war effectively ended with the signing of the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

At the time,Mr. Babcock was extremely disappointed, not so much because the war was over—because he saw the results of it—but because he never made it to the trenches. “I never got to fight,” he says with a heavy breath. “I don’t consider myself to be a veteran, because I never got to fight.” Even today, 90 years later, it bothers him.

If the war had lasted another eight months, he would have made it.

After the War
After returning to Canada in December 1918,Mr. Babcock held a number of jobs, eventually ending up in the United States where he joined the US Army. He served from 1921 to 1924. After his discharge, he remained in the US, settling in Spokane, where he eventually started a family. In 1941, he volunteered to serve in the US Air Force but, ironically, was told he was too old.

At every opportunity, Mr. Babcock has defied convention. He earned a small-plane pilot license at 65, backpacked throughout the mountains of Washington State until he was 85 and earned his high school diploma at 94.

Today, he continues to live life to its fullest, with a smile for everyone. Two or three times a week, he goes out for lunch at his favourite restaurant in Spokane and is proud to be able to walk everywhere on his own, using a walker only for balance.He has the firm handshake of a young man, and attributes his good health and long life to remaining fit and active.

He has never spent much time associating with other veterans, largely because he never saw himself as one. Clearly he is. It may be true that Jack Babcock never got to fight, but that was not for lack of a fighting spirit


In September 1916, Pte Jack Babcock was a young soldier in D Company, 146th Overseas Battalion at Camp Valcartier, Que.


Jack Babcock, Canada’s sole remaining First World War veteran, wears the beret of The Royal Canadian Regiment, the unit he joined in October 1916 as a replacement during the First World War.


Acting Lance Corporal Jack Babcock still has his pay book and discharge certificate after all these years.