WWI Soldier's Remains To Be Buried In France
The remains of a Canadian soldier killed during the First World War and missing for nearly a century found a final resting place during a military ceremony in northern France on Tuesday.
The ceremony was held for Pte. Alexander Johnston of Hamilton, who was killed on Sept. 29, 1918, during the Battle of the Canal du Nord, part of the Hundred Days Offensive, which led to the end of the war a few weeks after his death.
He received full military honours as he was buried in Le Cantimpré Canadian Cemetery with five of his relatives in attendance, along with a Canadian Forces contingent and Canada's ambassador to France, Marc Lortie.
Johnston's great-grandniece from Ottawa, a trumpeter in the Governor General's Foot Guards, played the Last Post at the service in Sailly-lez-Cambrai.
"I just thought the whole thing was incredible," said Cpl. Ann Gregory, a 26-year reservist who has played the piece at numerous military services, including funerals for Canadian veterans.
"Playing today I felt like I was playing not only for him, but also for the others that had fallen and others whose remains haven't been found," she said.
Remains found in 2008
Johnston's remains were uncovered in Raillencourt Saint-Olle, France, during the excavation for a factory in 2008 but weren't identified until March of this year following an intensive search of historical records and DNA testing.
"There were some collar tags with the remains, which identified the regiment that he was serving with. The Department of National Defence, through a very extensive search, basically used forensic science and genealogy research, and over a period of three years, eventually identified my father," Gregory said.
"Using mitochrondial DNA, which means it must come from the mother's side of the family — it's the only DNA that survives that length of time — they did genetic testing with my father and identified that it was truly his grand-uncle, my great-grand-uncle," she said.
Don Gregory was the final genetic link and shares mitochondrial DNA with Johnston. It’s a strain of DNA that ends with him.
"[Johnston] was my great-grandmother's brother, and certainly it's a shame that she passed away a few years ago," Ann Gregory said.
Janet Roy, a genealogist who tracked down Johnston's living relatives, said finding the identity of a person lost decades earlier is rewarding.
"We get to bring people back from the dead really — connect them with families," she said.
Curtis Hildebrandt, an analyst and reporting officer with Warnex Pro-DNA Services Inc., which conducted DNA tests on samples of bone and teeth taken from Johnston's remains, said identifying the long-lost soldiers is different from the work he does on criminal cases.
"This is a little more heartfelt because they've actually stood up for you and your country," he said.
Gregory, attending the ceremony with her father, Don Gregory, who was raised in Hamilton and lives in Ottawa, said it has given her a chance to connect with her past.
"I'm going to meet relatives from Scotland I've never met before," she said. "It's incredible and we get to share the story with the world."
Johnston was born in Coatbridge, Scotland, on Aug. 20, 1885, and moved to Hamilton in his late 20s, according to a news release from Department of National Defence. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January 1918 and entered combat on Sept. 4 of that year with the 78th Battalion.
"He was in three very important battles within 15 days and was killed at the front in a very heavy battle," Gregory said.
'Lest we forget'
Nearly 28,000 members of the Canadian armed forces who died in the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War have no known or maintainable grave.
The federal government, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces operate a casualty identification program that seeks to determine the identity of and find a permanent resting place for those lost soldiers. The process involves searching through military personnel records, birth and marriage certificates and census data along with analyzing DNA evidence collected from living relatives.
Gregory said she was grateful for that effort.
"I think it's incredible all the work that they put into identifying him and everything, and then doing the right thing, doing the proper service," she said.
Johnston's story will also help bring attention to members of the Canadian military who made the ultimate sacrifice, Gregory said.
"For me it ties into the whole Remembrance Day service and 'lest we forget,'" she said.