Under the shadows of two stone pillars marking Canada's most celebrated military triumph of the First World War, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reflected Monday in France on the 1917 battle that many regard as the moment Canada was truly born.
"Every nation has a creation story to tell," Harper said to thousands gathered on the field below, where Canadian forces exactly 90 years ago captured the German-occupied position thought by Allied Forces to be impregnable.
"The First World War and the Battle of Vimy Ridge are central to the story of our country."
As the brilliant sunshine warmed the throngs of French and Canadians who made the pilgrimage to the historic site, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Queen Elizabeth laid wreaths at the base of the Vimy Ridge monument's magnificent sculpted columns.
The Queen, making her address in French, declared the land "sacred soil" and spoke of its importance to Canada, a nation then barely 50 years old that "deserved so much to take its rightful place … as a proud sovereign nation, strong and free."
She concluded the ceremony by rededicating the newly refurbished Vimy Ridge monument.Then,with military precision, four low-flying French military jetssoared over the memorial in time with the last notes from a musical cue.
Canadian sculptor Walter Allward built the magnificent tribute at Vimy Ridge in 1936. Etched in the white stone are the names of more than 11,000 missing Canadians who died in the war without a grave.
French, Britishfailed to take Vimy
In Canadian history,the battleis considered to be one of the defining moments of the country, when all four divisions of Canada's army came together as a single unit to do what France and Britain had not been able to do.
"For the Allies, this ridge had become a symbol of futility and despair," the Queen said Monday. "It was against this foreboding challenge that the four divisions of Canada … succeeded in doing something that many believed to be impossible."
The battle was hailed as the first Allied success of the war, owing much to the innovative tactics of Canada's military.It also marked for many the day that Canada was born as a nation, not just a British colony.
French and British military forces lost 150,000 men in attempts to take the ridge back. But the Canadians studied the 14-kilometre escarpment for months, then sent some 100,000 soldiers to execute a plan that involved snaking tunnels and a continuous cloud of fire that screened the troops.
Deaths in Afghanistan reinforce 'sad reality' of war
Canadian students wearing Maple Leaf face paint waved flags in honour of the historic accomplishment.
But as word began to spread that six Canadian soldiers had died in Afghanistan a day earlier, the sombre news underscored for them the cost of that great achievement.
"It almost puts you in a state of having two minds certainly about war. You realize war is hell," said high school history teacher Mitch Bubulj, on a class trip at Vimy with students from Toronto's Silverthorn Collegiate Institute.
"It's a sad reality that we do go to war, but it's important that we remember Canadians who were fighting in a right-minded way to maintain our freedoms and our democracy."
The weekend roadside bomb attack was the worst single-day death toll for Canada's military since the operation in Afghanistan began.
De Villepin, Harper and the Queen all made references to that attack during Monday's ceremony at the Vimy site, which is considered to be sovereign Canadian property that France gave to Canada as a gift.
Victory shows dogged will of Canadians: Ignatieff
Standing before the Vimy monument earlier in the day, Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff told CBC Newsworld from France that the battle of Vimy was a testament to the dogged will of Canadians.
'…If you ask Canadians to do something hard, something really difficult, they will not let you down. That's what we celebrate at Vimy.' —Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff
"This was a very difficult thing to do when you stand at the top of Vimy Ridge and you see the steep climb that the Canadians had to get to the top under continuous fire," he said.
Ignatieff said the First World War feat was a "shining example" that "if you ask Canadians to do something hard, something really difficult, they will not let you down. That's what we celebrate at Vimy."
Ceremonies in Canada, Afghanistan
As the Queen mingled with the veterans in France, ceremonies were also being held in Canadian cities and in Afghanistan, including at:
- Ottawa'sConfederation Square, where young Canadians clutched large poppies and laid them one by one at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
- AtOntario's legislative buildingsin Toronto,where Premier Dalton McGuinty presided over a Vimy ceremony at the Veterans' Memorial Wall, which opened last September on the front lawn of Queen's Park.
- In Montreal's National Field of Honour on Monday night, where federal Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion was to join others ina torchlight parade.
And in Afghanistan, Canadian troops bowed their heads and observed a moment of silence to mark the Vimy anniversary as well as the recent deaths of their six comrades in Kandahar.