Thousands gather to mark ’End of an Era,’ honour WWI vets

Fighter jets roared overheard and artillery blasted a 21-gun salute as thousands of soldiers, dignitaries and ordinary Canadians paid tribute to the country’s First World War veterans at an “End of an Era” ceremony Friday.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest shakes hand with unidentified veterans during a ceremony to mark the 93rd anniversary of the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge on Friday in Quebec City.

Quebec Premier Jean Charest shakes hand with unidentified veterans during a ceremony to mark the 93rd anniversary of the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge on Friday in Quebec City.

OTTAWA — Fighter jets roared overheard and artillery blasted a 21-gun salute as thousands of soldiers, dignitaries and ordinary Canadians paid tribute to the country’s First World War veterans at an “End of an Era” ceremony Friday.

The commemoration at the National War Memorial in Ottawa marked the 93rd anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge — and the passing of a generation. It follows the death of John Babcock, Canada’s last-known veteran of the “war to end all wars.”

Hundreds of veterans of later conflicts stood at attention and sang as the ceremony opened with O Canada. Four CF-18s soared overhead in a “Missing Man Formation” under grey skies, followed by the artillery salute.

Native veterans conducted a smudging ceremony before their comrades from the Second World War through Afghanistan passed a torch to youth.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean, and Gen. Walt Natynczyk, the chief of Defence staff, shook hands with veterans in a range of uniforms.

Four soldiers in khaki First World War combat uniforms stood sentry around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with heads bowed. The tomb holds the unidentified remains of a Canadian soldier killed at Vimy.

At the memorial, the Union Jack and an old Red Ensign — a replica of the flag flown at Vimy Ridge in 1917 — flew alongside the Maple Leaf.

All around Parliament Hill, flags flew at half-mast, buffeted by chilly, blustery winds.

Harper told the crowd that Canada has “lost our last living link to this generation of admirable Canadians.”

He said their “fearlessness in war and selflessness in peace first defined our young nation in the eyes of the world.”

“These Canadians did not fight the First World War to expand our dominion. It was not over old hostilities that they battled.

“No, these young people risked their lives so that other nations could live in the same peace and freedom that had taken such deep root in Canada.

“Fierce warriors with tender hearts, rock-ribbed patriots with a sense of international responsibility, these men embodied a greatness that later generations of Canadians have striven to emulate.”

Jean said the heroic acts of Babcock’s generation “determined the fate of all of humanity.” She thanked them, and urged Canadians not to forget them. Then she turned to the present.

“While it is important that we acknowledge the magnitude of the contributions made by our veterans,” she said, “it is just as important to recognize that of the men and the women who still today go to trouble spots around the world to free entire populations from the yoke of tyranny.”

The Queen sent a message lauding “a truly remarkable generation.”

She said Babcock and his compatriots “helped to end the most terrible conflict the world had ever known.”

“These gallant men and women went off to Europe to … defend the principles of peace, freedom and justice for their country and, indeed, for all mankind,” she said in a statement.

“Theirs was a story of unspeakable horror, unmitigated heroism and — ultimately — of inspiring victory. This tremendous sacrifice can rightly be regarded as a defining moment in the history of Canada and is one which we will never forget.”

As the ceremony wrapped up, a First World War biplane circled over Parliament Hill.

About 650,000 Canadians served between 1914 and 1918; 68,000 were killed in action, another 170,000 were wounded.

Babcock died Feb. 18 at the age of 109.

He was only 15 when he enlisted and the Kingston, Ont., native was denied the chance to serve on the front lines. He was transferred to Britain, where he trained until the war ended.

Because he never saw combat, Babcock never made much of his veteran status. He moved to the United States after the war, where he became an electrician.

He turned down the honour of a state funeral. “They should commemorate all of them, instead of just one,” he said.

Shortly after Babcock’s funeral in Spokane, Wash., the federal government announced plans to mark his passing and commemorate all who fought.

The ceremony was one of several to be held across the country on the anniversary of the day in 1917 when Canadians famously stormed Vimy Ridge.

Other forces were unable to take the ridge before the Canadian Corps went up against three divisions of the German Sixth Army — the French alone took about 150,000 casualties in their attempts.

Vimy was the first time all four divisions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force joined in battle, elevating the four-day fight to a national symbol of achievement and sacrifice. It is considered by many to mark the birth of the nation, independent of its British roots.

A 100-hectare portion of the former battleground now serves as a memorial park and site of the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site. Ceremonies were also being held there Friday, as well as at the Canada Memorial in London.

The federal government is displaying special books of reflection for people to sign at locations across Canada, including Parliament Hill and in all legislatures.

Books will also be available overseas, including at Vimy Ridge and the Canadian Forces Base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.