Eight thousand people gathered in the chilly Ottawa air to pay tribute to those who fought in a war that none were old enough to remember – and a battle that defined the young confederacy of Canada as a nation in the eyes of the world.
It was 93 years ago that Canadian forces, working together for the first time, launched an attack on German soldiers occupying a French hill known as Vimy Ridge. Over the next three days, 3,598 Canadians were killed and many more were injured. But the Canadians took more ground than any previous offensive by far more seasoned armies.
The ceremony at the National War Memorial yesterday to honour that achievement – and the other courageous exploits of the First World War – was marked by a significant absence. John “Jack” Babcock, the last remaining Canadian veteran of the conflict, died on Feb. 18 at the age of 109.
“It was a brutal and perilous war fought in the trenches, one in which an entire generation of young people courageously braved gunfire and cannons, often at great peril to their lives,” Governor-General Michäelle Jean told the crowd.
One of the onlookers was 88-year-old Marty Joiner. His father, William Joiner, was a member of the Canadian field artillery that participated in the assault on Vimy Ridge.
“He was married and he had two children left at home when he went over,” Mr. Joiner said of his father, who was in his early 30s when called to war. “When he came back, he suffered a lot of headaches – severe headaches for years and years.”
A little more than two decades later, Mr. Joiner followed in his father’s footsteps. He was 18 years old when he left for Europe to fight in the Second World War. “At that time, they were telling us if we wanted our freedom it would be good for us to go over there and fight for our freedom, which we did,” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the soldiers of Vimy Ridge “fierce warriors with tender hearts, rock-ribbed patriots with a sense of international responsibility” who embodied a greatness that succeeding generations have strived to imitate.”
“With the passing of John Babcock only a few weeks ago, we have sadly lost our last living link to this generation of admirable Canadians,” Mr. Harper said.
The torch of remembrance that Mr. Babcock handed to a veteran during a similar ceremony in 2008 was lit and passed by an old soldier to a young one and then down a row of veterans until it was received by a young woman.
Four F-18s flew overhead in the “missing man” formation. When it was followed by a biplane, the vintage aircraft flown by the aces of the Great War, the thousands huddled below burst into applause.
White doves were released after the Last Post had been played, the wreaths had been laid, and the shivering crowd had paused for two minutes of silence. At the end of the hour-long ceremony, veterans marched in the street around the memorial and people on the sidelines clapped for minutes on end.
John Newell, who trained pilots during the Second World War, said he believes that, even though the span of years between the great conflicts is growing, Canadians are becoming more interested in the battles that form their history.
“I think Canadians are spending a lot more time reading about the wars and what it meant to Canada,” 87-year-old Mr. Newell said. “I think you can tell by the crowds that are increasing every year that they are more cognizant of what the wars meant to Canada.”