The number on his fire helmet said it all. Jack Babcock was 108 years old.
But he was much younger when he began lying about his true age. Looking for adventure, the Kingston-area farm boy signed up to fight with the Royal Canadian Regiment at age 15, telling recruiters hungry for soldiers he was 18-years-old.
The truth caught up to Jack Babcock in England in 1915 before he was shipped to the Western Front. He and 1,300 other underage boys were mustered into the 28th Reserve – the “Boys Battalion” – and trained in Wales.
“They drilled us all day,” he told Sarnia firefighters when they first met him in 2007. “I’ll bet we were the smartest-drilled outfit in the Canadian army.”
In 2009, city firefighters were busy gathering gifts of clothing, coffee and other treats for Canadian soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The idea of honouring Canada’s last living First World War veteran seemed a fitting extension of the program.
Jack Babcock, then living in Spokane, Washington, was the last Canadian soldier still standing.
He was mustered out of the army in 1919 and served in the U.S. Army from 1921-1924. His first marriage lasted 45 years; his second 33 years. He took up flying at age 65 and earned his high school diploma at age 95.
Babcock enjoyed reading mystery novels and ate a plate of French fries dipped in tartar sauce every day.
Sarnia firefighter Kevin McHarg travelled to Spokane several times to meet Jack, chat, and present gifts: a Sarnia Sting jersey, and a white fire helmet designating “Private Babcock” an honorary Sarnia fire chief. McHarg was accompanied by Canadian country singer Julian Austin, and by U.S. troop supporter Liz Jackson of Washington.
“I was nervous at the prospect of meeting him,” McHarg said. “You could feel the history in the room, just being with him.”
Babcock died on Feb. 18, 2010 at the age of 109. Ever conscious of not having actually joined the fight, Babcock rejected a state funeral, despite such an offer from a federal government anxious to recognize the passing of the country’s last Great War vet.
Instead, a service was conducted at the National War Memorial on April 9 of that year, on Vimy Ridge Day. Canadian dignitaries and officers of the Royal Canadian Regiment also attended a memorial service in Spokane.
Sarnia can take pride in our fire department’s recognition of, and association with, our last living link to “the war to end all wars.”