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Two surviving vets can't attend

From Saturday's Globe & Mail

In all, perhaps 25,000 people will be there.

Drawn from half a dozen wars and conflicts, aging veterans will silently mourn the loss of fallen comrades. With TV cameras rolling, throngs of school children will cheer and applaud, as will legions of politicians and government bureaucrats.

The RCMP, some on horses, will also be on hand. So, too, will thousands of ordinary Canadian and French citizens.

But as the huge crowd gathers in the French city of Arras on Monday to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and watch Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President Jacques Chirac dedicate the newly restored memorial honouring the 10,602 Canadians killed or wounded there, two faces will be conspicuously absent.

They belong to Dwight Wilson, 105, and John Babcock, 106, the last two surviving Canadian veterans of the First World War.

Mr. Wilson lives in Toronto while Mr. Babcock resides in Washington State (he emigrated to the United States shortly after the war ended). Neither is hardy enough to make the trip to France.

Until recently there was a third brother-in-arms: Lloyd Clemett, who, along with Mr. Wilson, lived at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, home to the country's largest veteran-care facility.

But Mr. Clemett, who, like Mr. Wilson, lied about his age in his eagerness to see action in Europe, died in February. He, too, was 106.

“We were all hepped up on the war to go fight the Germans,” Mr. Clemett told The Globe and Mail in an interview in 2002. “You just signed up because it was the thing to do. And they were paying a dollar and your board, which was more than you could make in civilian jobs.”

When the 80th anniversary of Vimy Ridge was marked in France 10 years ago, at least a dozen First World War veterans from this country were able to attend and they stirred considerable interest, Janice Sommerby of Veterans Affairs Canada recalled.

With reason. Notwithstanding some latter-day critics who have questioned the Easter Monday battle's near-iconic status as one of the First World War's most decisive victories, and perhaps a turning point in shaping Canada, it was indisputably a watershed for the armed forces.

During four days of fierce fighting, four Canadian divisions comprising about 100,000 soldiers, fighting together for the first time, captured the heavily fortified ridge from the Germans. Their victory came after the French and British armies suffered close to 190,000 casualties during two years of futile, bloody efforts to do the same.

And the Canadians paid dearly — 3,598 killed and more than 7,000 wounded — although by the slaughterhouse benchmark of other First World War battles the toll was relatively modest.

The $20-million restoration of the Vimy memorial Mr. Harper will dedicate, watched by the Queen and French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, has been under way since December, 2004.

Perched on the highest point of ground on what was then called Hill 145, it is a striking piece of sculpture: twin 27-metre pylons bearing 20 figures twice as big as life-size, along with the names of the 11,285 Canadian First World War soldiers who have no known grave.

Vimy Ridge will be remembered in Canada, too.

In Montreal, more than 500 recruits from the Canadian Forces Leadership and Recruit School will take part in a torchlight parade at the National Field of Honour.

In Ottawa, Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and NDP Leader Jack Layton will attend a noon-hour commemoration ceremony at the National War Memorial.

In Toronto, Premier Dalton McGuinty, Lieutenant-Governor James Bartleman, and Brigadier-General Guy Thibault will attend a similar ceremony at Queen's Park.

Edmonton will see an outdoor military parade and remembrance service, addressed by Alberta Lieutenant-Governor Norman Kwong.

Similar commemorations will be held in Winnipeg and several other cities.

“The Battle of Vimy Ridge was a critical victory for the Allies in the First World War and it was an important milestone for Canada,” Mr. Harper said in a release before departing Saturday for Arras.

“Our young country came of age as an independent nation that day.”

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