Bringing closure and a final resting place, a century later

Article / November 9, 2017 / Project number: 17-0197

By Caroline Fyfe, Army Public Affairs

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Ottawa, Ontario — From 2002 to 2011, it became a familiar sight to witness hundreds of people lining the overpasses along the Highway of Heroes, located between Trenton and Toronto, to pay tribute as the remains of Canadian Armed Forces members killed in Afghanistan were repatriated back to Canada.

However, this did not occur for previous generations of Canadian military members. Before 1970, the remains of soldiers who fought and died in earlier wars were not repatriated back home, but rather buried in the nearest location appropriate to where they fell. Reasons included the tradition of fallen comrades being buried together, the sheer number of the dead and the state of hygienic conditions at the time.

In 1970, the Canadian government’s policy on returning the remains of its war dead home was changed and now all Canadian military personnel who die abroad can be returned to Canada for burial, as was the case with those who fell during Canada’s engagement in Afghanistan.

The unidentified remains of four Canadian soldiers who died during the First World War, but which had not been interred in military cemeteries, were found in France in the past few years, Three of them were identified in December 2016.

On August 23, 24 and 25, 2017, burials took place in France for:

  • Private Reginald Joseph Winfield Johnston, of the Calgary Highlanders;
  • Sergeant Harold Wilfred Shaughnessy, of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada;
  • Sergeant James Alexander Milne, of the Calgary Highlanders; and
  • An unknown Canadian First World War soldier whose identity or regiment could not be determined as he was found without personal or unit identifiers.

The four men were deemed to have died in 1917, during the time of the battles of Vimy Ridge and Hill 70 and the Attack on the Arleux Loop.

Dr. Sarah Lockyer is the Casualty Identification Coordinator with the Department of National Defence (DND), the department’s only forensic anthropologist. She said a lot of effort goes into identifying the remains of Canadian soldiers when they are found, although the Canadian government does not actively search for these remains.

When remains are discovered in areas close to former battlefield sites, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) is called in to assume custody of the remains once the police have determined that the remains are war dead.

Dr. Lockyer travels twice a year to France and collaborates closely with CWGC to examine, catalogue and preserve the remains, and organize the details surrounding the burials of Canadian soldiers. “My role is to identify these soldiers,” she said.

She was involved in identifying Pte Johnston, Sgt Shaughnessy and Sgt Milne, and is currently working on several other cases.

The identifications are made possible thanks to a combination of factors that can include archaeological context, artefacts such as personal items and identifiers, historical research, anthropological analysis and possibly DNA testing if descendants can be identified.

The items found alongside the soldiers are examined, catalogued and in some cases are given back to the families or respective units, sometimes for display in a museum.

On August 21, 2017, the day before the interment of Sgt Shaughnessy and Pte Johnston, a small ceremony took place during which Dr. Lockyer presented some of the soldiers’ personal items to family members who had travelled to France for the interment. These items included a signet ring, two identification discs (commonly called dog tags), a toothbrush and a razor.

“For me to be able to give back these personal items to the soldiers’ families was a privilege; a significant and touching moment and a fitting conclusion to our work,” Dr. Lockyer declared.

Although the military burials themselves are organized and coordinated by the discovered soldiers’ respective Commonwealth countries, including Canada, the CWGC ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two World Wars will never be forgotten by caring for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 countries around the world. The 110,358 war dead of Canada are commemorated in 75 countries.

Besides Canada, France is the country with the largest number of Canadian war dead, with 47,500.

Dr. Lockyer noted that in July 2017, five new sets of Canadian remains were found in the area of the Battle of Hill 70. With 31 open cases, there are likely to be more Canadian military identifications and interments in the near future.

Whether their deaths occurred in recent years or decades ago, one constant remains: the Canadian Armed Forces believe in taking care of its own, and honours them by providing each member a proper and respectful burial.

These values remain as relevant today as they were a century ago.

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