Vimy ceremonies salute last WW I vet

Canadians have paid a special tribute to the country's last First World War veteran and his generation at a ceremony in Ottawa that officially marked the end of an era.
The national End of Era ceremony in Ottawa was one of many across the country. Others also took place in England, Belgium and at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. ((Laurence Wall/CBC))

Canadians have paid a special tribute to the country's last First World War veteran and his generation at a ceremony in Ottawa that officially marked the end of an era.

John Babcock, 109, who died in February, was honoured at the national End of an Era commemorative ceremony on Vimy Ridge Day at the National War Memorial in the capital on Friday morning.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the crowd of thousands that the event was a goodbye and a homage to "the generation whose fearlessness in war and selflessness in peace first defined our young nation in the eyes of the world."

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean thanked veterans personally for their service during a ceremonial inspection Friday. ((CBC))

He added, "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."

Freedom and the responsibility to use it for great purpose are a gift left behind by that generation, he said.

"As Canadians let us be tireless always and, as they were, for that which is right and good."

Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean said the spirit of Babcock and other witnesses of that war live in our memory, and that is precious because of the wisdom that we draw from it.

She added that while it's important to acknowledge the contribution of veterans, "it is just as important to recognize that of the men and women who still today go to troubled spots around the world to free entire populations from the yoke of tyranny."

The ceremony started at 11 a.m. ET with the arrival of the prime minister and governor general. Rows of veterans saluted Jean, and then she walked among them in a ceremonial inspection, shaking their hands and thanking them personally for their service.

The event included a 21-gun salute, a fly-past by a vintage First World War Sopwith Strutter aircraft and the release of 65 white homing pigeons, one for every 10,000 Canadians who served in First World War.

Ceremonies held across Canada

Other ceremonies are being held across Canada, in London and at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France. The memorial marks the place where Canadians won a First World War battle 93 years ago, helping establish Canada's identity as an independent country.

John Babcock, the last known Canadian veteran of the First World War, died on Feb. 18, 2010, at the age of 109.
The Queen issued a special statement Friday recognizing the significance of this year's events as a time to pay tribute "to the passing of a truly remarkable generation."

She credited Canadian soldiers with helping end what she called "the most terrible conflict the world had ever known" and called their sacrifice a "defining moment in the history of Canada … which we will never forget."

Nearly 650,000 Canadians served and more than 200,000 were killed or wounded in the overseas conflict. Newfoundlanders who served in the war, which took place long before Newfoundland became part of Canada in 1949, were also honoured Friday.

At a ceremony beside the Canada Memorial in London's Green Park near Buckingham Palace earlier Friday, Canadian High Commissioner James Wright said Canadians owe a debt to that entire generation.

"The freedom we enjoy came at a heavy price," he said. "For that we honour all those who played a part in the Great War. And we thank them. And we will keep alive their memory now and for years to come."

Babcock, the last survivor among the Canadians who served, was born on a farm near Kingston, Ont., in 1900. He lied about his age to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Sydenham, Ont., in 1916.

When his age was discovered, he was sent to a Boys Battalion to train with other teenage boys until he was old enough to fight. The war ended shortly before he turned 18.

After the war, Babcock moved to the U.S. He died in Spokane, Wash., on Feb. 18, 2010.