Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Laid to Rest: Identifying Unknown Canadian Soldiers Who Fell in Battle in Europe

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Laid to Rest: Identifying Unknown Canadian Soldiers Who Fell in Battle in Europe

Article excerpt

Identifying Canada's unknown soldiers

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OTTAWA - It was a construction crew working on a hospital expansion that first came across human remains in 2010 near the pastoral French town of Vendin-le-Vieil -- remains that would later prove to be those of an unknown Canadian soldier.

Over the six years that followed, the remains of 18 more missing Canadians would be found in the same area, either in small groups or alone where they fell nearly a century earlier.

Located outside the city of Lens about 200 kilometres north of Paris, Vendin-le-Vieil was the scene of major fighting between Canadian and German forces in August 1917, during what is known as the Battle of Hill 70.

While largely overshadowed by the earlier fight for Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 was a defining moment for Canada, historians say: It was the first time in the First World War that the Canadian Corps was commanded by a Canadian, Arthur Currie, rather than a British general.

The 19 unknown soldiers are believed to have been among the 2,200 Canadians killed in the 10-day battle -- hundreds of whom were lost in the muddy battlefield or buried quickly where they fell and thus have no known grave.

Every year, the remains of some of the nearly 28,000 Canadians who went missing or were left with no known grave during the two world wars are discovered on the old battlefields of Europe.

When that happens, it falls to a small team inside the Department of National Defence to figure out their identities using a combination of history and science. The remains of 22 Canadian and 18 British soldiers have been identified since the program began in earnest about a decade ago.

"At the end of the day, these gentlemen made the ultimate sacrifice for their country," said Sarah Lockyer, National Defence's casualty identification co-ordinator.

"The least we can do is try, as best as we can, to return their identity so they can be buried with their name. And also so we don't forget their sacrifice. We continue to tell their story."

Seven Canadians were found in 2016, Lockyer said, including two near Vendin-le-Vieil.

"The first thing when we get the notice of a find from (the) Commonwealth War Graves Commission is we try and figure out who was there and when," said historian Carl Kletke, DND's heritage outreach officer. …

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