John William Boucher served honorably in the Civil War, fighting for the Union for seven months in 1864 and 1865. For most men, that would have been enough. But Boucher picked up his rifle again 52 years after the conflict’s end, when, at age 72, he became one of the oldest—possibly the very oldest—men to serve on the battlefield during World War I.
Boucher was born in Ontario, Canada, in December 1844, when Canada was still a British colony. Boucher’s parents were proud subjects of the crown. After his father’s untimely death, likely around 1850, Boucher was sent to boarding school. When the Civil War broke out, he dropped his books; slipped across the border; and, at age 19, tried to enlist in the Union Army. “I had gone out of my way … to battle for the cause of freedom in America’s Civil War,” wrote Boucher for the Syracuse Post-Standard in 1918.
Interestingly, Boucher’s Canadian citizenship wasn’t as much of an impediment to enlistment as his youth. Between 35,000 and 50,000 Canadians served in the Civil War, most on the Union side, even though it was technically illegal for British subjects to serve in the conflict. No driver’s licenses or formal identification cards existed at the time, so paperwork pretty much ran on the honor system. To the military, a body was a body.
From the archival record, it seems that Boucher first tried to enlist in Buffalo, where he was deemed too young, then in Cleveland, where he was rejected for causes unknown. He was finally accepted in Detroit, where he joined the 24th Michigan Infantry. He claimed to have served at the Battle of Nashville in December 1864 and through to the war’s end in April 1865.
A John Boucher appears in the 24th’s roster, but some of the details seem off. For one, the Boucher who enlisted in Detroit in September 1864 and was discharged in Jackson, Michigan, on October 26, 1864, was 18 at the time. In September 1864, Boucher would have been 19. If this roster is accurate, he served 56 days of active duty at most. The Battle of Nashville occurred 55 days after the listed discharge.
“Record-keeping then was not what it is now,” says historian John Boyko, author of Blood and Daring: How Canada Fought the American Civil War and Forged a Nation, and records kept weren’t always accurate.
After the Civil War, Boucher returned to Canada and started a family. He worked as a surveyor, baggageman and freight conductor for multiple railroads, even serving a stint stateside. Eventually, he settled in Gananoque, Ontario, on the northern banks of the St. Lawrence River, eight miles from the New York border. Boucher seems to have spent his middle years working in a carriage factory and as a night watchman for a metal foundry. At one point, according to a report in the Windsor Star, Boucher became a guide on the St. Lawrence. “In this work he obtained his first international reputation,” wrote journalist Dunn O’Hara in 1918, “for, as everyone knows, all good fishermen go to Gananoque sooner or later.”
Boucher’s children grew up, and, around 1898, his wife died. By August 1914, Boucher was a 69-year-old widower, healthy and seemingly content, spending most of his days behind a fishing pole. Then Germany marched on Belgium.
“The transformation came to Canada overnight,” wrote Boucher in a series of articles published by the Post-Standard in April 1918. Though Canada had technically been a self-governing dominion since 1867, it was still functionally under British rule. The Commonwealth was in peril, and 620,000 Canadians answered the call to serve in Europe. “The little peaceful fishing town … where I had lived for many years became an armed camp,” Boucher noted. “I saw youngsters … whom I had later taken out on camping and fishing trips suddenly grow to sturdy manhood. … The uniform had transformed them.” Then, he added, “came the inspiration. My place was among them.”
Armies don’t take 72-year-olds—that is, unless the enlistee lies.
Shortly after the war broke out, Boucher went to a recruiting station near his home. The enlistment officer complimented him on his “fine build and strong physique” but stated the obvious—the upper age limit for enlisted men was 45. Two years later, age 71 and still aching to join, Boucher got a tip that the 72nd Queen’s University Battery needed a cook. “Now, I had something of a reputation as a chef,” Boucher bragged in the Post-Standard. “There were few in Gananoque … who had not sampled my dishes at one time or another.” He was denied again and begged a Canadian senator for help. No luck. “The Canadian army was immune from politics,” he wrote.
Another year passed. In January 1917, the 257th Canadian Railway Battalion raised its age limit to 48, granting Boucher three extra years of plausible deniability. “Here, I thought, was the supreme opportunity,” he said. “To be with the railroad construction battalions meant being within sight of the trenches.” He went to a different recruiting office, where he undressed, stood before the doctor, threw back his shoulders and stated his age as 48.
“And then some, like myself,” the doctor replied with a smile—at least in Boucher’s account.
Boucher passed the physical exam and, at 72, became a sapper—a private-grade military engineer. He packed his bags and took the next boat to Europe.
Boucher joined his battalion in western France. The work of the 257th—repetitive, grinding—was of a kind that earns few honors but wins wars. “Logistics are crucial,” Cook continues. “You can’t fight a battle without ammunition. You need to move soldiers to the front and the wounded away from the front, and if you can’t get food, water and rum to soldiers, they’re going to degenerate into a mob.”
Trench railways were the solution to this problem. These narrow-gauge lines, with small locomotives and rail cars, were similar to those seen at a theme park. “In building a narrow-gauge line,” Boucher wrote in the Post-Standard, “… we simply went ahead laying the ties and joining up the steel rails. Instead of grading a hill or chopping down a tree, we ran our line around them.” He earned a nickname: “Dad.” Able as he was, he wasn’t fooling anyone, and he shared his actual age with those he trusted.
Railway battalions like the 257th answered a chicken and egg problem: how to move the tonnage of rails, wooden ties and earth needed to construct the railways themselves. “The average person is fairly well acquainted with the perversity of the common, everyday variety of donkey,” Boucher wrote, “but … these were no ordinary mules. … I was afraid for the first time that my age was coming against me.” The furry conscripts were untrained for work, and “if they had their way, they never would be.”
Animals were everywhere during World War I. Sixteen million non-human animals were sent into the service: trench dogs that hunted rats; carrier pigeons; and even a baboon named Jackie, who served as a private in the Third South African Infantry Regiment. An estimated 484,143 British mules, horses, camels and steers died in the war. Stubborn as they were, the mules proved indispensable: “We had to be considerate. Yes, sir, we had to humor them. But if you’ve ever tried to humor a person who never in his life laughed at a joke, you’ve got a pretty good idea [of] what our task was like.”
World War I was also the first major conflict to take to the skies. For most of human history, war was a horizontal affair. Now, soldiers had to worry upward. German biplanes, piloted by aces like Manfred von Richthofen, the notorious “Red Baron,” regularly targeted Allied railway battalions, dropping bombs and firing down with their nose guns.
The rail crews were high-value targets and sitting ducks. “A German plane appeared over a wooded hill,” Boucher recalled. “Officers commanded us to scatter and lay flat on our faces.” During one attack, he spotted an old iron boiler and sprinted for cover. “I’d have made it all right if I hadn’t stepped into a hole. I stumbled and went sprawling on the ground and lay there with my nose buried in the earth.” The bombs kept coming, tearing the sky and blasting the fields around him. “As I look back, I am astonished that we were able to accomplish anything,” he wrote. “Very often, as fast as we laid rails, they were ripped up by an exploding shell.”
The men marched through France into Belgium. As they slogged through knee-deep mud, Boucher struggled, but he refused assistance. “I had not come to the front to shift my burden to the shoulders of other men,” he later said. The group reached Ypres, Belgium—“From our camp I could see the pile of ruins”—and continued laying track. Casualties mounted. “On our first day at work, two of our company were killed outright, and several others were wounded by shrapnel. … Each day [added] more names.”
After eight months of tough labor, marching and dodging enemy fire, Boucher’s age caught up with him. He was struggling with rheumatism, likely arthritis, and a Red Cross corporal ordered him to the infirmary. A medical officer fixed the exhausted 72-year-old with a bewildered glare.
“How old are you?” he demanded. “I don’t want your army age. I want your true age.”
Boucher relented. By then, everyone in the company knew his actual age, so there was no use hiding it.
He summoned his courage. “In two or three weeks, I’ll be 73 years old.”
Boucher’s war was over. Dismissed on the grounds of age, he returned to London to convalesce and await transfer back to Canada. While in town, he told his story to military officers, British lords and clergy members. Rumors spread. After a time, “I received this momentous order, parading me up before” George V, Boucher wrote. On December 21, 1917, he nervously approached Buckingham Palace, having “some difficulty keeping both my feet going in the same direction.” He presented his invitation and was ushered through the gates. The British king greeted him in the royal study.
“I simply bowed to him, without saluting, as I had no cap on and King George was dressed in civilian clothes,” Boucher recalled. “The king immediately advanced, warmly grasped my hand, and said, ‘Sapper Boucher, I am proud to meet you. It does my eyes good to see a man of your age in khaki.’”
Boucher was delighted by the king’s informality. They talked about family, Boucher’s home in Canada and his service in the Civil War. The king was particularly interested in Boucher’s impressions of the United States’ dedication to the war effort. The U.S. had entered the war eight months earlier, and its leaders’ commitment remained an open question.
“Do you think America will make good?” the king asked.
“Have the Canadians made good, Your Majesty?” Boucher replied. “The Yankees will do the same. I’ve lived among them for many years, and I can safely say that the United States is determined to wipe the kaiser’s war machine out of existence.” As for Boucher’s future plans? “I have been rejected three times now,” Boucher told the sovereign, “once for the artillery, for the infantry and for the engineers. Now I am going to try and get into the flying corps.”
Boucher sailed back to Canada in February 1918. He was met as a returning hero, and his story spread through local papers. Still eager to serve, Boucher volunteered to address audiences in the U.S., hoping his remarkable story would rally their support. The U.S. Committee on Public Information booked appearances for Boucher in central New York, near his home in Gananoque. He spoke at schools, in Rotary halls and in auditoriums, with his lectures serving as successful fundraisers for wartime causes. “Sapper Boucher last evening addressed an audience of 1,000 persons in the Regent Theater [in] Seneca Falls,” read an April 1918 account in the Post-Standard. “The theater was crowded to the doors, and the old soldier was frequently interrupted by stirring applause.”
Boucher’s tour expanded to the South and evolved into a multimedia spectacle, with his talks introducing a government-produced silent documentary, America at War, meant to stir Americans’ patriotism. He was self-deprecating during these appearances, playing up his battlefield hijinks for laughs but always driving home his message: “Now, it is for you Americans to make good my promise to King George—that you will prove real fighters.”
World War I ended on November 11, 1918, with the signing of an armistice near Compiègne, France. The harsh terms of that peace, with further punitive demands against the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles, sowed the seeds of a German discontent that would help launch the next world war 21 years later.
In 1919, Boucher relocated to Syracuse, where he joined the American Legion and actively participated in veterans’ causes. At Civil War gatherings, he was inevitably one of the youngest veterans; at World War I gatherings, he was the oldest by decades. He was proud of his epoch-spanning service, but when asked which war had been harder, he didn’t mince words: “Why, the Civil War was not even a miniature in comparison!” He became a U.S. citizen around 1920 and relocated to Detroit to live with his daughter, though he spent most winters in Miami. In 1927, his birthday was celebrated in a national news item headlined “Oldest World War Veteran, 81.” “I feel splendid,” Boucher told the Daily Republican. “Why, I’m only a boy, feel like one, with the world ahead of me.”
He wasn’t wrong. Boucher lived to age 94, dying on February 27, 1939—a scant six months before Adolf Hitler ordered his tanks into Poland, beginning World War II.