I just spent some hours reading about and looking at their images. Fresh young faces, eager to prove themselves. The last Canadian among them died more than four years ago at age 109. They are the Canadians who fought in the war to end all wars and which for Canada began on August 4, 1914, World War I.
What do we know about this generation of Canadians ready and willing to sacrifice all for God and country? Not nearly enough. The last Canadian was regaled by a Prime Minister, a Governor General and made headline news at the time of his death in February of 2010. John Babcock didn’t wish the headlines. In fact, he considered himself a “tin soldier” because he’d never fought in the trenches, or anywhere else during the Great War. Not for lack of trying. Babcock enlisted in Sydenham, Ontario, but was identified as too young at age 15. At 16, Babcock signed on with the Royal Canadian Regiment and was again discovered as too young, 18 being the minimum age. He was though assigned to what was known as the Boys Battalion and shipped to England for training, which is what he continued to do until the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, following Germany’s military collapse.
Would he have fought? Of course he would have. That’s why he enlisted underage. Almost 620,000 Canadians would participate in World War I and more than one in ten perished.
It has been said Canada came of age in World War I, specifically between April 9-13, 1917, during the Battle at Vimy Ridge. British and French armies had thrown everything they had at the Germans defending this significant sightline in northern France. They failed. Now it was Canada’s turn. Under the command Canadian Arthur Currie, the Canadians who had prepared well for the battle, attacked. It took four days of brutal fighting with the wounded left for corpsmen to collect, the soldiers had orders to leave their fallen comrades, but the Canadians prevailed.
The price was high. More than 3500 Canadian soldiers died, while just over 7000 were wounded. International media hailed Canada’s victory at Vimy, Arthur Currie was promoted to Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was honoured with a battlefield knighting by King George.
Passchendaele was the site of another famous battle, depicted in the feature film of the same name, where Arthur Currie, in October of 1917 led Canadian troops to victory, again where the British had failed.
If there exists a Canadian who remains unaware of the name John McCrae, it’s doubtful that person hasn’t though heard McCrae’s epic poem In Flanders Fields. John McCrae saw action at Ypres, where the Germans first used gas in battle in 1915. McCrae would die at the end of January, 1918, not knowing In Flanders Fields would become synonymous with respecting those who die in battle.
Locally, the 205th Tiger Battalion became a machine gun group named after the Hamilton Tigers athletic club and included many well known Hamilton area athletes, most notably Robert “Bobby” Kerr, the 200 meter Gold Medal winner, after finishing third in the 100 meter final at the 1908 London Olympic Games.
Billy Bishop and a cadre of Canadian pilots distinguished themselves in the first aircraft to aircraft sky fighting. And no, Charles Shultz’ beloved beagle Snoopy had nothing to do with the fact warplane to warplane engagements are known as dog fights (although a caller once swore that to be true on air).
As for John Babcock, after the war he moved to the United States where he joined the military, became a citizen and made his life. However, Babcock never lost his affection for Canada. He requested and saw his Canadian citizenship restored. Take a moment and browse ‘Canadians who served in World War I’ in an online search engine. I’m glad I did.
Written By: Roy Green