OTTAWA—Dignitaries and veterans were among the thousands who attended a national commemorative ceremony in Ottawa on Friday to mark the Canadian World War I victory 93 years ago at Vimy Ridge in France that became a symbol of Canada’s identity as an independent nation.
Following earlier attempts by French and British troops that failed to capture the key German stronghold, the Canadians succeeded. But it came at grave cost. The four-day battle from April 9 to 12, 1917, took the life of some 3,600 Canadian soldiers.
“Today, we pay homage to the generation whose fearlessness in battle and selflessness in intention defined our young nation in the eyes of the world,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement. “They risked their lives so the people of Europe could live with the same peace and freedom that had taken such deep root in Canada.”
The ceremony at the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Parliament Hill also paid tribute to John Babcock, Canada’s last known First World War veteran. Mr. Babcock passed away on Feb. 18 at age 109 in Spokane, Washington. With his death, government organizers of this year’s events are calling this anniversary the “end of an era.”
“With the passing of John ‘Jack’ Babcock earlier this year, Canada sadly lost its last living link to that generation,” Mr. Harper said. “While those Canadians who fought in that epic struggle may now have passed from the face of the earth, their legacy lives on all around us.”
Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s monarch and head of state, also issued a statement.
“As proud and grateful Canadians, we pause today to mark not only the ninety-third anniversary of this Nation’s victory at Vimy Ridge but also to pay tribute to the passing of a truly remarkable generation who helped to end the most terrible conflict the world had ever known,” she said.
“They will remain forever etched in the hearts of a grateful people and on the pages of our history as symbols of service, honour and dedication.”
Governor General Michaëlle Jean and Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn also attended the ceremony.
“I believe a ceremony like this has no meaning unless we who survive—and unless future generations—recognize that the memory of these men and women whose heroic acts determined the fate of all of humanity, including our own, is extremely precious,” Ms. Jean said in her speech.
“While it is important that we acknowledge the magnitude of the contribution made by our veterans, it is just as important to recognize that of the men and women who, still today, go to trouble spots around the world to free entire populations from the yoke of tyranny.”
The ceremony included a 21-gun salute, a flyby of CF-18 fighter jets, a Métis musical performance, and the laying of floral arrangements. Sixty-five doves were released, one for every 10,000 Canadian soldiers who served in the First World War from 1914 to 1918.
Mr. Babcock was among more than 650,000 Canadians and Newfoundlanders who enlisted in what became known as “the war to end all wars.” About 424,000 served overseas as part of Canada’s Expeditionary Force. Canada’s population was less than 8 million at the time.
The force’s main combat component consisted of the Canadian Corps of four divisions that fought on the Western Front, a 965-kilometre stretch of cold, wet, muddy trenches stretching from the northern frontiers of Switzerland to the English Channel along the German-Belgian-French border.
In April 1917, all four divisions—some 100,000 soldiers—fought together for the first time at Vimy Ridge. The victory was followed by more extraordinary successes but also enormous sacrifices. More than 68,000 Canadians died in the war; more than 170,000 were injured.
At the same time, Canada’s contribution to the Great War heralded the beginnings of its emergence as a sovereign nation. In 2003 the federal government declared April 9 as Vimy Ridge Day, giving recognition to the battle that was the country’s first significant victory in the war.
Vimy Ridge Day remembrance events also took place in provincial and territorial capitals across Canada. International commemorative ceremonies were held at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France, at the highest point of Vimy Ridge; and at the Canada Memorial at Green Park in London, England.