The Curious Case of Jack Babcock

John Henry Foster "Jack" Babcock (born July 23, 1900) is, at age 109, the last known surviving veteran of the Canadian military to have served in the First World War and, since the death of Harry Patch, the conflict's oldest surviving participant. Babcock first attempted to join the army at the age of fifteen, but was turned down and sent to work in Halifax until he was placed in the Young Soldiers Battalion in August 1917. Babcock was then transferred to Britain, where he continued his training until the end of the war.

Having never seen combat, Babcock never considered himself a veteran and moved to the United States in the 1920s, where he joined the United States Army and eventually became an electrician. In May 2007, following the death of Dwight Wilson, he became the last surviving veteran of the First World War who served with the Canadian forces.[1] Since then, he has received international attention, including 109th birthday greetings from the Queen of Canada, the Governor General of Canada and the Canadian Prime Minister. [2]

Early life

Babcock was born into a family of thirteen children on a farm in Frontenac County, Ontario.[3] According to Babcock, the barn where he was born (which no longer exists) was located off Highway 38 in South Frontenac Township.[4] His father died in 1906 after a tree-cutting accident, when Babcock was only six years old. As described in his account given to Maclean's, while his father was cutting down one tree, another dead tree fell on his shoulder. Though he was brought into the house on bobsleigh, he only survived another two hours. Babcock claimed that this was an "awful blow" to the family.[5]

School was never a concern for the young Babcock, and he did not earn his high school diploma until the age of 95.[5] On growing up in the area, Babcock claims that he "didn't do very much," although he admits that "It was a fun place to grow up."[4] Babcock partook in fishing, hunting and swimming—especially around the local Sydenham Lake—in order to pass the time with the other kids his age. He would return to the area in 1919, after his wartime experiences, but soon after left for the United States. Nevertheless, Babcock's relatives continue to work at the Crater Dairy farm (named after the Holleford crater, a remnant of a meteor strike) and the community grew to greatly respect John.[4]

World War I

At the age of fifteen and a half, Babcock was impressed by two recruiting officers, one a lieutenant and one a sergeant, who quoted from The Charge of the Light Brigade at Perth Road.[5] Babcock was recruited in Sydenham, Ontario and joined the 146th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.[3] He was then sent to Valcartier, Quebec. There Babcock underwent a physical, where it was discovered that he was underage. He was designated status A-4: physically fit, but underage.[5] At the time, the minimum age for combat was nineteen.[6] Babcock was turned down, but managed to make it all the way to Halifax by train before he was stopped by the company commander.[5]

In Halifax, he was sent to Wellington Barracks, the city's peacetime barracks, where he wrestled freight onto large army vehicles. Tired of the work, Babcock took the opportunity to volunteer for the Royal Canadian Regiment when fifty recruits were called on, claiming that his age was 18.[5] Officials quickly discovered that he was only 16, however, and they placed him in a reserve battalion known as the Boys (or Young Soldiers) Battalion in August 1917.[3] Babcock then undertook an ocean voyage to England and, in Liverpool, he was stationed with the 26th Reserve and sent to Bexhill-on-Sea where he trained with about 1,300 others, about a third of whom were veterans from battles in France.[5]

The Young Soldiers Battalion trained the recruits for eight hours a day. In his spare time, Babcock went on leave to Scotland, where he met his first girlfriend, a woman from the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. He was also introduced to the pleasures of beer and the horrors of war that some of the older veterans had come across.[5] Babcock asserts that he would have fought in the war, given the chance,[7] but the war ended before he could be brought to the front lines. For this reason, Babcock claims that he never felt like "a real soldier"[8] and rarely talked of his experiences until his centenary.[7] He also never joined any veterans associations.[3]


Babcock's brother Manley enlisted after John and served with the engineers as a sapper. Manley suffered a nervous breakdown after the war. This, in Babcock's eyes, was one of many psychological problems that occurred during and after the war.[5] He recalls at least one instance where a soldier shot himself with a .45 after his comrades discovered that he had emigrated from Germany, while another ran himself through with a bayonet after a pack drill.[5] Babcock also recounted the importance of honesty in the Canadian Army. In one case, one of his fellow comrades stole a dollar watch and received nine months in prison and Babcock cites that as an example of the strict discipline in the military structure.[5]

After World War I

With relatives in the United States, Babcock paid the $7 head tax[5] and moved there in the 1920s.[3] He became a United States citizen in 1946[7] after serving in the United States Army and achieving the rank of Sergeant. He still retained a Canadian Army pension that totaled $750, and he took advantage of veteran vocational training to become an electrician. He ran a small light plant in his home neighborhood of Sydenham.[5] Among his World War II duty stations was Fort Lewis, located in Tacoma, Washington.[7]

At the age of 65, Babcock became a pilot.[3] As of 2006, he was in good mental and physical health, displayed by his ability to quickly recite the alphabet backwards, spell out his name in Morse Code and take daily walks with his wife to keep in shape.[3] At the age of 100, he wrote an autobiography titled Ten Decades of John Foster Babcock. It was distributed only to family and friends.[3][7]

Babcock has been married twice, first to Elsie, then to Dorothy, a woman nearly thirty years his junior[9] whom he met when she was taking care of his first wife while she was dying.[3] Babcock has one son (Jack Jr.),[9] one daughter, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. One grandchild, Matt, was an army dentist in Iraq during the Iraq War.[5] John and Dorothy live in Spokane, Washington, where Babcock has lived since 1932. Babcock's longevity is not entirely unprecedented; his younger sister Lucy died in July 2007 at the age of 102.[9]

Last surviving Canadian veteran

Since the death of Dwight Wilson on May 9, 2007, John Babcock is the last known Canadian veteran of the First World War. Babcock is proud of his status as the last surviving Canadian World War I veteran, although he does not feel the need to be honoured in a specific state funeral. Instead, he is of the opinion that "they should commemorate all of them, instead of just one."[5] He was also quoted as saying "I'm sure that all the attention I'm getting isn't because of anything spectacular I've done. It's because I'm the last one."[7]

Nevertheless, Babcock received much attention on the occasion of his 107th birthday, with wishes from Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Canada (whom Babcock jokes is a "nice looking gal"),[10] Governor General Michaƫlle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. Member of Parliament from British Columbia James Moore visited Babcock personally to deliver gifts and greetings. For his birthday, Babcock and his wife went to Rosauers for his favourite meal of hamburgers and fries.[10] Among the gifts he received was a necktie adorned with a poppy pattern, a symbol of World War I.[7]

In his hometown of South Frontenac, mayor Gary Davison sent a letter of congratulations, while the local coffee shop named their local blend, "The Jack," after him.[4] In addition, the local Royal Canadian Legion has a collection of World War I items on display, including a roll call with Babcock's name on it.[4] Babcock was invited to the opening of a Pentagon exhibit on March 6, 2008, featuring photos of nine World War I veterans, but was unable to attend. At the time, he was one of only two of the veterans pictured to be alive, along with American Frank Buckles, who did participate in the event.[11] In 2008, he was visited by Canadian officials and mentioned that he was interested in becoming a Canadian citizen in a letter written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper that was hand delivered to him in a cabinet meeting. The request was granted by the Prime Minister, and the paperwork was signed by Governor General Michaƫlle Jean, after which officials from Citizenship and Immigration Canada were flown to Spokane to complete the swearing in ceremony.[12][13] That same year, Babcock participated in the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies, appearing via video to symbolically pass the torch of remembrance, urging people to "hold it high".[14] Babcock credits his longevity to the intense physical training that he received in both the United States and Canadian armies.[3]


1.^ Bonner, Susan (2007-05-09). "Canadian WWI veteran dies at 106". CBC News. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
2.^ "WWI Vet Jack Babcock celebrates 109th birthday -". KXLY-Spokane, WA USA. 2009-07-23. Retrieved 2008-07-23.
3.^ a b c d e f g h i j "Interview with A/Lance-Corporal John Babcock, Veteran of the First World War". Veterans Affairs Canada. 2006-11-01. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
4.^ a b c d e Warmington, Joe (2007-09-10). "Rural Ontario area bursts with pride at the part they play in the adventurous life of 107-year-old WWI vet 'Jack'". The Toronto Sun. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
5.^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o MacQueen, Ken (2007-06-11). "Babcock, John (Interview)". Maclean's Magazine. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
6.^ Holmes, Richard (2005). Tommy. HarperPerennial. ISBN 978-0007137527.
7.^ a b c d e f g Cannata, Amy (2007-07-19). "Last Canadian WWI vet celebrates 107". Spokesman Review. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
8.^ Brown, Chris (2007-07-18). "Last WWI vet celebrates 107th birthday". CBC News. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
9.^ a b c "Canada's sole surviving WWI vet marks birthday". CTV. 2007-07-18. Retrieved 2007-10-04.
10.^ a b "John Babcock, last surviving Canadian WWI vet, celebrates 107th birthday". 2007-07-18.§ion_id=559&story_id=12946. Retrieved 2007-09-30.
11.^ "Last doughboy gets Presidential 'Thank You'". 2008-03-06. Retrieved 2008-03-07.
12.^ "Canadian WW1 vet to become a Canadian citizen". Yahoo News. May 9, 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-10.
13.^ Tobin Dalrymple (May 8, 2008). "First World War vet regains Canadian citizenship". Retrieved 2008-05-12.
14.^ "Countrywide ceremonies honour dead from all wars". Canada in Afghanistan (CTV News). 2008-11-11. Retrieved 2009-01-01.