Canadian WWI soldiers reburied in special ceremony in France

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Canadian WWI soldiers reburied in special ceremony in France
Soldiers from the Canadian Army's Calgary Highlanders stand in front of the coffin of one of the three Canadian soldiers who died during the First World War as they are buried during a funeral service at the English military cemetery of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) in Loos-en-Gohelle, near Lens, northern France. Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP

The remains of three Canadian soldiers who died in World War I, 105 years ago, but were only recently identified have been reburied in France at an emotion-filled military ceremony.


Hundreds of thousands of servicemen died in the war but only a few of those whose remains languish in the fields of northern France have been identified - until now.

Thanks to major infrastructure projects and better organisation within the agencies that deal with the dead, the remains of more and more WWI soldiers have been discovered in northern France in recent years.

"We knew he'd been killed. We knew he was honoured on the Vimy Memorial. But to have a place of remembrance is something else," said 77-year-old Gordon Gilfether of his great uncle, Sergeant Richard Musgrave, who died when he was 32.


The Vimy Memorial, north of nearby Arras, is inscribed with the names of the 11,285 Canadians who died in France in WWI and have no known graves.

"It's been a very emotional day," Gilfether said at Thursday's ceremony at the British cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle near the northeastern city of Lille.

"It's marvellous," another grand-nephew, James Musgrave Coltman, 83, said of the ceremony. "I only wish his sister, who was our granny, was here to see it."

Musgrave's body was found in 2017 near Lens and reburied at the British cemetery along with those of the men discovered with him - Harry Atherton, 24, and Percy Howarth, 23.

All three were born in Britain and emigrated to Canada before enlisting and returning to Europe to fight.

They fell on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 in August 2017, when more than 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded trying to retake the strategic mining town of Lens.

A sixth of the 600,000 soldiers who went missing in northern France during WWI were from the former British Empire.

For many years, bones regularly discovered in the area between Paris and the border with Belgium were quietly removed.

"When the first big infrastructure projects were built, there wasn't an official procedure for exhumations," said Alain Jacques, head of archaeology in Arras.


"And real estate developers and farmers were reluctant to mention the bodies they found, in case that halted their projects."

Since then, Jacques said, finds have accelerated "because building sites systematically call in mine-clearers -- former soldiers who are often touched by these remains - and because the services responsible are more responsive".

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) assists national authorities in identifying the remains of Commonwealth servicemen.

Since 2021, it has two anthropologists stationed in northern France to collect human remains and items that could help identify them, such as regiment badges and personal items bearing the owner's initials.

"We've built up a network involving the construction industry, mine-clearers and the police so we are informed when interesting discoveries come up," said Stephan Naji, head of the recovery unit at the CWGC.

Every year, the service handles 40 to 60 bodies uncovered on farmland or building sites such as windfarms.

Many of those currently undergoing identification were found on the site of a new hospital in Lens.

Tens, possibly hundreds of others could be exhumed during the digging of the Seine-Nord canal that will link Compiegne, north of Paris, to Cambrai near the Belgian border.

For much of its 107-kilometre length, the canal follows the WWI front line

"There are still 100,000 soldiers underneath... the battlefield of France," CWGC director general Claire Horton said on May 4 of the Commonwealth victims.

"We will work to ... reunite them with the 100,000 families who have no trace of their loved ones."

Horton said the construction of the hospital and the canal represented "a brief but crucial window of opportunity".

"Twenty to thirty thousand men died within this very small... five-kilometre area," she said.

At the hospital site, "every time they put a digger in the ground, they find somebody".

So much so that space for 1,200 graves is being prepared next to the British cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle.

"They are never forgotten," Gilfether said.

"Even after 100 years we still don't forget that they sacrificed their lives for us to live in peace."


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Anonymous 2023/06/23 08:44
They fell on the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 in August 2017, when more than 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded trying to retake the strategic mining town of Lens. -1917 maybe?

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