Interview with John Babcock

Canada's last known veteran of WWI died yesterday at age 109; Maclean's spoke with him in 2007

John Babcock, the last known First World War veteran who served Canada, has died at the age of 109. Born on July 23, 1900, Babcock moved to the U.S. in the 1920s. He lived with his wife Dorothy in Spokane, Wash., whom he married after the death of his first wife, Elsie, more than 30 years ago. Babcock retired at 89, after a career as a mechanical contractor. It gave him the time, finally, to resume the schooling he’d interrupted during the war. He earned his high school diploma at 95.

(Originally published on June 11, 2007)

I brought you some back copies of Maclean’s. You’ve been away 87 years, I thought you might want to catch up.
Here’s to the American eagle, that great noble bird. She spreads her wings over Canada, and sometimes drops a turd. Here’s to our dear old Canada, where our soil’s so deep and rich. We need no turds from your noble birds you Yankee son of a bitch.

Those are dangerous words here in America. You were raised on a farm near Kingston, tell me about your childhood.
We had a 50-acre farm, we had a modern sawmill. They had 10 children. [My father] was felling a tree. A dead tree in the path of it came down and hit him in the shoulder. They brought him in on a bobsleigh, cradled in a horse blanket. He lived for two hours. It was an awful blow to our family. That was the year I became six.

You didn’t have much time for school.
Oh, I didn’t care about that anyway.

Do you recall hearing about the start of the war?
Oh, I heard about it, I guess. I enlisted when I was 15 1/2 years old. I remember I was at a place called Perth Road. There was a lieutenant and a sergeant came [recruiting] there. The sergeant quoted [from] “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” I was very impressed with that. During the time I was there they asked me if I wouldn’t like to enlist. I said, yeah. So they signed me up. I walked down to Sydenham, it was several miles and they had a bunch of us together and we drilled in the city hall. We were sent to Valcartier, that was in Quebec. Everybody had a physical before they went overseas. I was A-4. That meant I was physically fit but I was underage. For some reason or other they didn’t call out my name with all the people who were turned down, so I put my pack on and got on the train. I got as far as Halifax and went to get on the boat. The company commander, he knew my status and he had me step aside. They sent me up to Wellington Barracks, that was the peacetime barracks in Halifax. They had me wrestling freight on a big army truck. I didn’t care for that. They called for volunteers for 50 men to go to the RCRs, that was the Royal Canadian Regiment. I volunteered. They asked me how old I was. I said 18.

How old were you?
Sixteen. My service record came through. They found out how old I was so they put me in the Boys Battalion, they called it.

How was the crossing?
I was seasick. Went over on the California. It was torpedoed the second-to-next trip; the submarines were very active then. We landed in Liverpool. They put us on one of those trains that had those compartments that seat six. They gave us a gallon can of bully beef we opened with a bayonet. I was in the 26th Reserve. I’d hear those veterans talk about different places they fought. Finally they got all the kids who were underage and sent us to Bexhill-on-Sea. There were 1,300 of us. About a third of them had been to France. They were veterans.

What was a typical day like for the “Young Soldiers Battalion”?
Well, they drilled us eight hours a day. Our senior non-coms and officers were veterans and they drilled us. We didn’t like it but it didn’t make any difference.

There were 1,300 boys full of piss and vinegar. How did you pass the time?
I went on leave to Scotland. I met a little Scots girl. She was a WAAC(Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps). I was with her part of the time I was in Scotland. We’d just walk up and down the streets. [Laughs] Once, we were parked next to a stone wall. The people across the street, I think they saw us and called the police. The police came, but they didn’t disturb us. We got up and left. These WAACs, they had long johns underneath. Then they had a pair of bloomers, olive drab bloomers, over them. I got her bloomers down but I came home a virgin.

The girls I had gone to grade school with, they had learned about the birds and the bees. They took care of things. I wasn’t a virgin very long.

You must have heard a lot of stories about the front.
I heard the veterans talking about Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. We had wet canteens. When those veterans were in those wet canteens, during an evening they would drink nine or 10 imperial quarts of beer while they were BS-ing.

What about the brutality of war, did they talk about that?
It wasn’t fun, that was for damn sure. They enjoyed their beer. I felt bad about this [story]. They would capture German soldiers. A detail would have to take them back where they were holding the prisoners. They didn’t want to be bothered, so they’d take them back to the reserve trenches and shoot them. I thought that was a hell of a thing to do.

[Dorothy asks] Were they were just bragging after all that beer?
I think they did it.

Canadians paid a high price in that war. There were some 66,000 killed. You must have known many that didn’t come back.
My brother Manley enlisted after I did. He transferred to the engineers. He became a sapper. They would dig under the German lines and put a bunch of explosives in there and blow them up. It was dangerous. He had a nervous breakdown after he got out of the army.

There were many soldiers who had emotional problems because of the war.
We had a fellow. I’ve forgotten his name. He had emigrated from Germany. He was in the Canadian Army. The people didn’t know that he was from Germany but they had found out. He came off guard duty, I guess. He took his .45 and said, “I’m going to kill myself.” There was a first sergeant there, he said, “Give me that gun.” He said, “Sergeant, I don’t want to hurt you but don’t try to get this gun.” So he shot himself. I was in the room where it was. Another time they used to have pack drill [as punishment]. A man would have to put on his full pack and march around the barracks. One fellow felt so bad because he’d had pack drill he got up at night. Took his bayonet, put the hilt against the wall, and ran it through him and killed himself.

You’ve talked about the honesty of the Canadian soldier.
Stealing from a comrade was the lowest thing you could do. I remember one fellow, he was just a youngster, and he stole a dollar watch and he got nine months [in prison]. He said they’d give you a rusty chain and you’d have to take a piece of sandpaper and polish the links in it. That was your punishment. The discipline in the Canadian Army was very strict.

The battlefields must have built to an enormous size in your imagination. What were your thoughts when the Armistice was signed before you could go?
I felt that I had missed what I had come over there for. And I had. I didn’t see any active service.

Was there a sense of relief, which would be a very sensible reaction in my view?
I don’t recall feeling relief. I thought more that I had missed what I had come over there for.

You didn’t stay in Canada very long after the war, why?
I had relatives in the United States. All you had to do to get into the United States was pay a $7 head tax. I remember when I went to pay my head tax I had a quick-change artist who made a story about changing money. He flim-flammed me out of $10 or $15.

Did you feel there was more opportunity?
There was more opportunity here.

You enlisted in the U.S. army. Was it difficult to switch uniforms?
I’d spent three years in the Canadian Army. In the American army, we put the rifle on the right shoulder. In the Canadian Army we put it one our left shoulder. It didn’t take me long to master the drill. A month after I was in the American army, I became a corporal. In another month, I was a sergeant.

Did you get a Canadian Army pension?
They gave me a cheque for about $750. That was a war gratuity. When I was in the United States, I heard they were giving Canadian veterans vocational training, so I came back to take that. I became an electrician. They would send me out to wire houses in little towns. I was pretty rough to start with, but I got pretty good at that. I ran a little light plant in Canada, it was in Sydenham, it was water-powered.

You have a son and a daughter. How many grandchildren and great-grandchildren?
[Dorothy answers] He had eight grandchildren. He’s got five great-grandchildren.

Did any of those grandchildren wear a uniform?
Matt [an army dentist] did, in Iraq.

It’s not a soldier’s job to question why you’re at war, but a father and grandfather has that right. Do you have any thoughts on the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Well, I know that you’re liable to get killed, and there isn’t any great honour for doing it. It’s a job that every young man of a certain age has to do. You serve your country doing that. I’m sure that when a man is in the trenches he doesn’t consider that he’s going to get killed.

[Dorothy asks] How would you feel about having a grandchild in Iraq now?
I wouldn’t like it.

Do you see this war ending any time soon? Is there a way for the U.S. to extract itself?
I don’t know enough about it, but I wish they’d get the hell out of there.

To get morbid for a moment. You’re now the last Canadian who wore a uniform overseas in the First World War. You’re kind of a rare artifact, an endangered species. Does it feel strange?
[Laughs] My wife waits on me hand and foot, and I love it. I think it’s probably a good thing that people are remembered who took part in World War I.

There had been talk of a state funeral for the last veteran when that time comes. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, I became a naturalized citizen of the United States so I think that should go to a Canadian.

[Dorothy] The last Canadian is dead.
Well, I suppose if they don’t have anybody else, they can choose me. [Laughs] So who else is around? I am the last one?

You’re like the dodo bird, sir. There was some thought that when the last Canadian veteran passes they should celebrate all of the soldiers of that time. Is that a good idea?
I think they should commemorate all of them, instead of just one.

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