The end of a generation of soldiers

Veteran John Babcock died last Thursday at the age of 109

The end of a generation of soldiers Canada’s last surviving First World War veteran, John Babcock, died last Thursday at the age of 109. There had been persistent calls for this nation’s last soldier of the Great War to be given a state funeral: in 2006 the House of Commons unanimously passed a motion calling for one, in response to 90,000 Canadians signing a petition requesting for the honour.

But Babcock, who lived most of his life in the United States, never liked the idea, especially since he did not see action during the war. “I feel guilty because I’m not a war hero,” he said last year. Last week the Historica-Dominion Institute, which promotes knowledge of Canadian history, stepped in to urge the federal government to offer the Babcock family a state funeral. His family decided to respect his wishes and turned down Ottawa’s offer of a state funeral. Instead, a memorial service will be held on Feb. 27 in Spokane, Wash. Still, Andrew Cohen, president of the historical institute, believes it was right to make one final request. “Sometimes families feel differently after a death,” he explained.

Now focus is shifting to a government-led celebration of the 620,000 Canadians who served between 1914 and 1918, more than 66,000 of whom perished. The Historica-Dominion Institute has asked Ottawa for a national day of commemoration “to mark the passing of a generation of brave men and women.” Certainly that’s more along the lines of what Babcock suggested: “I think they should commemorate all of them, instead of just one,” he told Maclean’s in 2007. Cohen says a national day of commemoration would be “a teachable moment when we reflect on that generation and those that followed who did what [Babcock] did and served their country.”

If Britain’s experience is any guide, the events could encompass the entire country. After Britain’s last Great War veteran, Harry Patch, 111, died last July, remembrance services marking his generation’s passing were held throughout that nation, culminating with a national service at a packed Westminster Abbey.