As the nation mourned the death in February of Canada’s last known veteran of the First World War, Newcastle resident Bob Gowdy was reflecting on the historic passing of John Babcock from a very personal perspective.
John Henry Foster (“Jack”) Babcock was the last of the approximately 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who served in what was then called “the war to end all wars,” a conflict that began in August, 1914 and ended on Nov. 11, 1918. He died on Feb. 18th, at the age of 109, in Spokane, Washington. Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement following Babcock’s death, noting, “John Babcock was Canada’s last living link to the Great War, which in so many ways marked our coming of age as a nation. …The passing of Mr. Babcock marks the end of an era.”
To Bob Gowdy, a semi-retired resident of Newcastle, that was the era of his father Charles, and his uncle Robert. Back in 1916, the Gowdy brothers could not have imagined that one of their first acts after volunteering to enlist would become historically noteworthy over ninety years later. But it would, for as Bob Gowdy discovered decades after his father’s death in 1974, Charles Gowdy and his brother Robert were part of the team that recruited John Babcock into the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force (C.O.E.F.).
It is a link to his past that Gowdy said he only learned about a few years ago, after Babcock became the sole surviving Canadian veteran of World War I. According to Gowdy, researchers discovered that Babcock enlisted in Sydenham, Ontario (north of Kingston) in 1916, and that his enlistment papers were witnessed by one Stan Wattam. Wattam grew up near Sydenham in the village of Verona, as did Charles and Robert Gowdy, while Babcock was born in the neighbouring hamlet of Holleford.
According to Gowdy, the three Verona natives enlisted in Kingston, where they joined the 146th Battalion. Charles Gowdy left a hand-written memoir of his experience with the C.O.E.F., in which he noted that after he enlisted in Kingston on Jan. 13, 1916, he was then sent out to recruit others.
Bob Gowdy is now in possession of the memoir, in which his father wrote, “They sent Stan Wattam, Robert and I back to Sydenham on the night train. We came to Harrowsmith and got on a horse stage to Sydenham. Stayed and boarded there, and got five men enlisted there. Then they sent us to Verona… We got 53 men at Verona to enlist…”
The memoir revealed the link between the Gowdy brothers and Babcock. “Stan Wattam’s signature was on Jack Babcock’s enlistment papers as a witness,” said Gowdy. “So I knew Dad and Robert were there too.”
The link seems appropriate when one takes into account the similar backgrounds from which the Gowdy brothers and Babcock came. “They all grew up on little farms in that area,” said Bob Gowdy. Furthermore, both the Gowdys and Babcock experienced the loss of a parent early in life. Babcock was reported to be 6-years old when his father died, after which time he was cared for by various relatives. Similarly, Charles was 7 and Robert was 9 when their mother died, leaving them in the care of neighbours while their father worked on the railway in Northern Ontario, said Bob.
“They earned their own keep on the local farms until they joined the army,” he said, explaining that the pay was a big factor in the young men’s decisions to enlist. “They were paid one dollar and ten cents a day. A dollar a day was a big deal then.”
Babcock’s recollections of his recruitment were quoted in the Ottawa Sun: “A sergeant and officer came through and they told us about ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ [the heroic but doomed British cavalry attack during the Crimean War, immortalized in verse by Alfred Lord Tennyson] and they asked me if I would like to sign up. It was the thing to do, and I didn’t know any better. And I got $1.10 a day because they were hard up for men.”
Indeed, it appears the C.O.E.F. was hard up, as Babcock and Charles Gowdy were both underage when they enlisted. Babcock’s attestation papers, signed in Kingston a few days after his enlistment, describe him as 5’4 ½” with a chest measurement of 33 inches. Despite the fact that he stated his date of birth as July 23, 1900, meaning he was not yet 16, a doctor recorded his “apparent age” as “18 years.”
According to Bob Gowdy, his father Charles was also underage, but he lied about his age in order to join older brother Robert.
Charles’ memoir picks up the men’s shared history, after they were sent to “that mud hole,” the army camp at Barriefield (near Kingston): “It was about the middle of June , and one night they put us on a train. We had about 900 men then, and went to Valcartier, 20 miles from Quebec City… There were 35 battalions there, about 1,000 men in each… [In September, we were] shipped to Halifax…”
It was in Halifax that the Gowdys’ story diverges from Babcock’s. Just as the 146th Battalion was to embark for England, Babcock’s age was discovered, and his unit sailed without him. Charles and Robert Gowdy were loaded onto one of six troop boats carrying the fresh recruits across the Atlantic. Charles noted that they were escorted by one cruiser and two destroyers for the journey to Liverpool, which took “seven days and seven nights.”
Two weeks later, after much persistence, Babcock was allowed to volunteer to go to Europe as part of an underage reserve with the Royal Canadian Regiment. He would spend the rest of the war doing drills and loading trucks, waiting for a chance to be sent to France. But by the time he turned 18, the war was almost over and he would not get to see active duty.
Meanwhile, it was discovered that Charles Gowdy, at 18, was also underage, as active duty required men to have reached 19. Charles was sent for training on the Lewis machine gun for about a month, until he turned 19. Once he came of age, he was made Corporal, and made the number one gunner, in charge of two Lewis machine gun crews of seven men each.
Older brother Robert was sent to the front straight from Liverpool, joining the Fourth Canadian Mounted Rifles. According to Bob Gowdy, his uncle was shot and wounded at Vimy Ridge, then sent to recover in a hospital in Scotland for three or four months, before being sent to France once again.
Gowdy said he believes that both Charles and Robert fought at Vimy in 1917. “To think that my father survived in some of these battles is just unbelievable. And Robert, I just can’t think what he went through in the cavalry unit,” he said.
Then, just before the end of the war, Robert was gassed at the village of Passchendaele, dying about a month later, on Sept. 28, 1918, from the effects of the gas.
“Robert was gassed at Passchendaele. Dad was also fighting in Belgium and his commanding officer got a wire to release him, to give him a leave. Robert was brought back to Boulogne, France. Dad was with him for 28 days before he died. Dad said he didn’t recognize him, the gas did such a terrible job.”
Robert Gowdy was buried at Terlincthun British Cemetery in France. For the 90th anniversary of Vimy Ridge in 2007, Bob Gowdy and his wife Louise made the trip to France and visited his uncle’s grave. It was shortly after his return that Gowdy heard that the Great War’s last living veteran had known his father and uncle. Put in touch by a reporter with the Kingston Whig-Standard, Gowdy phoned Babcock in the fall of 2008.
Bob said he spoke with Babcock’s wife, Dorothy, “I said to Dorothy, ‘Ask him if he remembers the Gowdy boys?’ She did, and I heard him in the background say, ‘Oh, yeah.’”
Gowdy then sent the Babcocks a photograph from 1916 that showed Charles and Robert, and Stan Wattam at Barriefield. Gowdy wondered if Babcock might be in the photograph as well, but too many years had passed for the question to be answerable. Gowdy received a reply from Dorothy, written on stationary marked “Dorothy & Jack Babcock,” which read, “We received the picture but John (Jack) was unable to identify anyone. He remembers the name ‘Gowdy,’ also ‘Stan Wattam’… I don’t know if it is eyesight or memory. I was so in hopes this picture would bring back memories…”
Gowdy phoned the Babcocks again shortly after receiving the note, and this time he had the opportunity to speak with Babcock himself. “It was a privilege to talk to Jack,” he said. “That our family had that close a tie with him is quite unusual.”
Gowdy said he was not surprised to learn that, contrary to the government’s plans, Babcock did not want a state funeral because, although he served overseas, he did not see active duty. “That was so typical of guys from that era,” said Gowdy. “They were all so humble. They didn’t want any glory.”
“They never bragged about it, what they saw and what they went through,” he remarked. “Dad just never said much.” But luckily, Charles Gowdy left behind a memoir, which speaks of his link to the Great War’s last Canadian veteran.
The federal government has said it plans to hold a national commemorative ceremony on April 9th, Vimy Ridge Day, at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, in honour of John Babcock and all of the men and women who served Canada in the First World War. Ceremonies of remembrance will also be held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, and the Canadian Memorial in London, England, according to Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn. Ottawa is also displaying special books of reflection for people to sign, at locations across the country, including an online version available at the Veterans Affairs Canada website at http://www.vac-acc.gc.ca.
All photos in this post courtesy of Bob Gowdy.