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Veteran was the last link to an era that defined Canada Add to ...

A last trumpet for John Henry Foster Babcock. A last muffled beat of the drum.

The last known Canadian veteran of the First World War has died at 109 - the last of the 650,000 men and women to serve in the uniforms of their country's armed forces in the conflict of 1914-1918.

A teenager spared the mud, disease and horrors of the Western Front in France only because authorities declared him too young for battle at 15 1/2, just before he was to be shipped overseas, Mr. Babcock was the final link to an era that in many ways marked Canada's emergence as a nation.

Mr. Babcock, born on an Ontario farm near Kingston at the end of Queen Victoria's reign, died in Spokane, Wash., his home for many years.

He became the last veteran of what was called the Great War and the war to end all wars in May, 2007. "That means I'm it," he told the Canadian Press in a telephone interview when he heard the news.

At the time he was no longer a Canadian, having been compelled under U.S. law to renounce his citizenship in order to work in the country. The Canadian government moved quickly to restore it and a Canadian is what Mr. Babcock was when he died.

The last French veteran, who also lied about his age to join the foreign legion and fight in the trenches, died in 2008 at 110. The last British soldier who fought in the trenches died in July, 2009, at the age of 111. Frank Buckles, the last living U.S. veteran, who also lied about his age to get into the army, turned 109 earlier this month.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said of Mr. Babcock and his compatriots: "They paid dearly for the freedom that we and our children enjoy every day. Now they are all gone. However, their voices and stories live on. They live on in our commitment to never forget, to cherish their values they fought for and to remember their sacrifices."

From a country with less than eight million population, 67,000 Canadians died and 173,000 were wounded during the war, a horrific loss of life and blood an ocean away from home - and a horror expressed by the Canadian national war memorial at Vimy that broke with the tradition of triumphal arches and made a powerful brooding on top of a French ridge.

More than 100,000 Canadians signed a statement asking Parliament to give Mr. Babcock a state funeral and Parliament voted in favour of it, but Mr. Babcock himself said he didn't want it.

Rudyard Griffiths, co-founder of the Dominion Institute to popularize Canadian history, said he hoped the government would find a way to hold a national day of commemoration that would be marked by Canadians to honour the Great War's sacrifice and the epic moment in the country's story.

"It would be well deserved if we could find a way to honour Mr. Babcock and his generation at the Olympics," Mr. Griffiths said. "It would be a fitting tribute if the next gold medal that was won by our athletes was given to his family."

The Prime Minister's statement said only that the government of Canada "has plans to respectfully mark this moment in our history. Canadians will have the opportunity to pay their respect and honour all those who served our country in the First World War. Details will be announced in the coming days."

Mr. Babcock was born on July 23, 1900, the eighth of 10 children of a farm family in Ontario's Frontenac County just north of Kingston.

He remembered being with an older brother when approached by a lieutenant and sergeant recruiting for the army in 1916.

"They were hard up for men," he said in an interview in December, 2005. "They asked me if I would like to enlist and I said, 'Sure.' So they signed me up."

He recalled in another interview that one of the recruiters recited to him Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade .

Despite an accurate recording of his birth date, his enlistment papers dated Feb. 4, 1916, described his "apparent age" as 18. The fair-haired boy stood all of 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches. He was assigned to the 146th Overseas Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and got on the train for Halifax.

"Of course, the company commander, who knew my age, had me step aside when I was ready to get on the boat," Mr. Babcock said.

He wound up toting freight on the docks, a job he loathed. When there was a call for 50 men to go overseas to join the Royal Canadian Regiment, he volunteered, said he was 18, and set sail across the Atlantic aboard a troopship escorted through submarine-infested waters by a navy cruiser and three destroyers.

He was stationed in Sussex, England, and drilled for eight hours a day for eventual service in France - which he never saw.

The only conflict he witnessed was on the day the Armistice was signed - Nov. 11, 1918 - when a fight broke out between Canadian and British soldiers.

"They armed themselves with rifles and bayonets. One fellow got a little obstreperous and they stuck a bayonet through his thigh."

A fortnight later, Mr. Babcock was back in Canada.

With a report from Tom Hawthorn

 

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