A missing soldier, born in Coatbridge in Lanarkshire who died in the closing stages of the First World War, has been identified by National Defence in Canada. Private Alexander Johnstone was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France when he was killed in September 1918.
From what I can take from the article below his body was taken off the battlefield and probably buried in a shallow grave. Unfortunately after the war his grave was not found until 2008. He was identified earlier this year through a DNA test on his great-nephew and he will be buried with full military honours on Tuesday.
From the Ottowa Citizen
Great War soldier finds his final resting place
By Jennifer Campbell, The Ottawa Citizen October 17, 2011
OTTAWA — For 90 years, his final resting place was unknown. His service, however was commemorated on the Vimy Memorial near Arras, France, where the names of more than 11,000 other Canadians who have no known grave also appear.
But next week, the remains of Pte. Alexander Johnston, which surfaced when a First World War battlefield became an industrial construction site in 2008, will be buried, with full military honours, at Le Cantimpré Canadian Cemetery in Sailly, France. And his Ottawa-based next of kin will be on hand to see it.
Indeed his great grand-niece, Ann Gregory, who is a bugler with the Governor General’s Foot Guards, will play The Last Post as part of the ceremony. She’s travelling as part of the National Defence delegation and her father, Don Gregory, and brother, David, will also be on hand thanks to Veterans Affairs, which provides funding for two family members to attend. In addition, three of Johnston’s relatives who live in Scotland, where he was born, will also travel to France for the ceremony.
Ann Gregory says her father, who was a jet pilot in the air force, knew about the death but it wasn’t something that she grew up knowing about.
“I guess because it was a long time ago and maybe because he didn’t have a known grave. It wasn’t something we talked about,” she said.
That said, she admits that it’s deeply meaningful to get to play The Last Post at his service. “It’s something that’s very special to me.
As a trumpet player, it’s the biggest honour you can be given. It helps families with closure and honours military service.
“It’s surprisingly emotional for me,” she said. “It’s a person I’ve never met, who died 93 years ago, but somehow it still feels close.
Also, The Last Post brings up emotions. It seems such a shame that someone dies in battle and they die so young.”
She said she’s impressed and touched by how much trouble National Defence took to identify his remains, find his family and “do the right thing” by giving him a proper burial. And, she was amazed they were able to track down her father, who is the last living Canadian who could have provided the mitochondrial (descended from the mother) DNA they prefer to use for testing in these cases (men have mitochondrial DNA but they can’t pass it on to their children.)
Pte. Johnston was born in Coatbridge, Scotland, in 1885 and moved to Hamilton, Ont., in his late 20s. He joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force on Jan. 5, 1918 and was part of the 78th Battalion when he died during the Battle of the Canal du Nord on Sept. 29, 1918. He was 33.
His remains were found less than a kilometre where he died and fought, said Laurel Clegg, casualty identification co-ordinator at National Defence. She was notified in 2008 by the Canadian Embassy, which had been contacted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. She travelled to France to look at the remains and begin the search for who he was.
Canada has signed an agreement that says no soldiers’ remains (the Unknown Soldier’s notwithstanding) get repatriated to Canada so she is only allowed to bring genetic samples back to Ottawa, and even those she will return to France to be interred with the rest of the remains next week.
“We take it very seriously, the idea that you don’t repatriate because you can’t repatriate them all,” Clegg said. “There’s also the sentiment that he’ll be interred with those he fought with, near to where he died. It does make the investigation more difficult but we stand by it.”
With these investigations — they do (on average) between two and three per year — they do two kinds of sleuthing. First, there’s historical research where they look at badges that might have been found with the remains (in this case there was a 78th Battalion medal) and then military service records to see whose remains were never recovered from that battalion and that area. Then Clegg goes to France to do the physical anthropological research to determine who old the soldier was, how tall, whether he had injuries — “you’re just looking for all these clues.” In some cases, and this is one, there aren’t enough clues, and she then takes a DNA sample as well.
While the historical research determined there were a total of 11 missing from that battalion, only two fit the profile they’d put together.
A genealogist then spent the next year looking for maternal descendants (that is, the soldier’s sister’s daughter’s children in this case) of those two soldiers and in the end found appropriate relatives for both the missing. Once tested, Don Gregory’s DNA was the perfect match.
“We made the identification in March and contacted the family,” Clegg said.
And on Oct. 25, Pte. Alexander Johnston will be buried with his fellow soldiers, less than a kilometre from where he fell.