John Babcock was 15 years old when he made a decision that, in hindsight, should have cost him his life.
An Ontario-born farm boy, the teen lied about his age to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and travel overseas. It was 1916 and Canada was embroiled in the First World War — a global conflict originating in Europe that raged from August 4, 1914, until November 11, 1918.
The First World War saw the British Empire, including Canada, allied with France, Russia, the United States and Serbia, against the German, Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. It was the bloodiest conflict in Canada’s history. More than 66,000 Canadians perished and over 170,000 were wounded.
Babcock was not one of them.
Initially shipped to England, the truth about his age was revealed, and in the summer of 1917, he was sent to the Boys Battalion — a training camp for soldiers too young to fight the Germans. By the time he turned 18, the war was almost over; while Babcock served his country, he never saw front-line combat.
Babcock died in 2010 at the age of 109. He was Canada’s last known First World War Veteran.
This year, Canada marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. While Veterans like Babcock and his peers have passed on, their legacy endures. Today, citizens enjoy rights and freedoms fought for by the more than 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served in the war.
But this peace came at a high price — especially during some key battles.
Battle of the Somme
The First World War’s Battle of the Somme began in northern France on July 1, 1916, when Allied soldiers began to advance through murderous enemy fire toward the German lines.
At the Somme, in what would be the start of a four-and-a-half-month offensive, more than 57,000 Commonwealth soldiers were killed on the opening day of the fighting alone. In all, more than 24,000 Canadian soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing in the late summer and fall of 1916 during one of the war’s most significant battles.
Victory at Vimy Ridge
The Canadians were later transferred elsewhere on the Western Front to the lines opposite a key enemy stronghold: Vimy Ridge, located about 175 kilometres north of Paris. This move, in the late fall of 1916, set into motion a string of battlefield successes that solidified Canadian troops’ growing reputation as first-rate frontline soldiers.
From April 9 to 12, 1917, in a relentless series of advances, Canadian soldiers took control of the heavily defended hill, forcing the Germans to withdraw and ending the Battle of Vimy Ridge. However, the 100,000 Canadians who had served there suffered more than 10,600 casualties, nearly 3,600 of them fatal.
Pushing on to Passchendaele
By October 1917, the Canadians had been sent north to Belgium to take part in the final push to capture the village of Passchendaele. The four divisions of the Canadian Corps had to do battle with little preparation, limited artillery, on flat terrain, in thick mud and under heavy enemy fire.
Only through acts of individual heroism did the Canadians reach the outskirts of the town, and by Nov. 10, troops had cleared the Germans from the village and eastern edge of Passchendaele Ridge.
Canada’s Hundred Days
In the following year on Aug. 8, 1918, Canada led the way in a major offensive that saw our troops advance 20 kilometres in three days, dashing enemy morale and setting the stage for the eventual Allied victory in the war. The Canadians pressed on, breaking through line after line of German defences and continuing to lose their lives right up until two minutes before the fighting officially ended when the armistice went into effect at 11:00 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918. Private George Lawrence Price became the final Canadian to die in combat.
Over a period of some 100 days, from Aug. 8 to Nov. 11, 1918, more than 100,000 Canadians advanced 130 kilometres and captured approximately 32,000 prisoners and nearly 3,800 artillery pieces, machine guns and mortars. The First World War was finally over.
Honouring the sacrifices
As Nov. 11, 2018 approaches, Veterans Affairs Canada is encouraging Canadians to remember this country’s contributions and sacrifices during the First World War.
There are numerous events in cities across the country, including everything from parades to musical theatre shows, that highlight the many heroes who helped make Canada the great country it is. Adults and youth can also send postcards, watch remembrance-themed videos and share their stories in online chatrooms.
Though it’s important to remember Veterans such as John Babcock, it’s also crucial to give thanks to the brave men and women that serve our country today — and there’s certainly no shortage of ways to honour them. This Remembrance Day, Canadians should make a commitment to keep their Veterans (and their poppies) close to their hearts.
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