19 May 2017

Whose Remains are These?

by Helen Mason
Battle of Vimy Ridge
This year, Canadians celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada's birth as a nation. In April, many also celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. During that battle, four Canadian fighting divisions surged up the steep slope to attack German forces at the top. Only one of those divisions failed to meet all its objectives that first day. By April 12, Canadian soldiers and their allies held the heights.

George William Clerihew
Many soldiers died in that battle. One of them was my great uncle, George William Clerihew. He was originally reported as missing in action. After his body was found, it was buried in a military cemetery in France. Family members still visit his grave.

All families are not as lucky. According to the Department of National Defence, 19,000 of the 62,000 Canadian fatalities in World War I remain missing. One of these is Francis (Frank) Bassell Winter, who was part of the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Originally from British Guyana, by the start of World War I, Frank lived in St. John with his parents and two sisters: Amy and May. He was the youngest. He joined the armed forces after graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from McGill University.

Francis (Frank) Bassell Winter
Like many Canadian soldiers, this New Brunswick soldier distinguished himself on the battlefield. In July 1916, he was awarded a Medal of Honour for his conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the German trenches. A lieutenant at the time, he was the first person into the German trench and the last person out, even taking time to help bring back the dead and wounded.

He'd been promoted to Captain by the time of the Battle of Hill 70, which was in August. Although the Battle of Hill 70 is little known, it was the beginning of an attack on the French city of Lens. This fight was meant to relieve pressure on the forces fighting near Passchendaele in Flanders. According to historians, the battle marks a turning point in Canadian military history. It was the first time that Canadian forces were led by a Canadian rather than a British general.

Souvenir sent to mother from Amiens.
Rather than attack Lens directly, Sir Arthur Currie, the Canadian general, attacked the hill to the north of Lens, one which dominates access to the area. Canadians charged up the hill on August 15, 1917–and subsequently captured it. The Canadians lost more than 9,000 soldiers in that battle. Of these sixty-nine were never found. One of these was Frank Bassell Winter.

Since he was unmarried and had no children, there were no direct descendants. His parents and sisters mourned his death. Without a body, his family had his name engraved on his mother's tombstone. The family heard nothing more about him until just before Easter of this year when my sister-in-law, Pat Mason, received a phone call from the Department of National Defence. Did she recognize the name Francis Bassell Winter?

What led to this query was the recovery of three human remains near Lens in late August 2016. Such bodies turn up during building or road construction or work in a farmer's field. After almost 100 years underground, much of the identifying material has decomposed. However, certain artefacts may remain, including identifying disks that carry the soldier's name, rank, and unit, cap badges, unit uniforms, rings, and bracelets. Identifying disks can't be used as the only means of identification because a soldier may be carrying the disk of a dead comrade.

Frank was known to have been in the area. In addition, he matched the age and height of the unknown soldiers. To clearly identify the remains, however, the Department of National Defence checks DNA. Much of this is unusable after a century underground. For old remains, identification experts used mitochondrial DNA. This form of DNA is passed from mother to child and from daughter to grandchild. Since Frank had no children, the Department of National Defence worked to trace the descendants of his two sisters.

Tracing female descendants has its difficulties. Sisters marry, change their names, and frequently move. If they don't have female descendants, their line of mitochondrial DNA isn't passed on.

Frank's great niece and great great niece
In Frank's case, his younger sister had gone out West. Fortunately, she had daughters who also had a daughter. Using marriage records and obituaries of family members, research personnel finally traced Frank's great niece to a suburb outside Ottawa.

My sister-in-law was asked to provide a saliva swab so that her mitochondrial DNA could be checked against that in the unknown remains. At Easter, she and her extended family celebrated this possible recovery of a long-dead relative.

Unfortunately, the DNA samples did not match. Frank is not among the three bodies found near Lens. Someday, someone digging in the area may come across his remains. Meanwhile, Casualty Identification staff at the Department of National Defence work to trace the ancestors of other possible matches. Pat's DNA profile will be kept on file for checking against bodies found in the area at some time in the future.

The neighbours of one of my friends had better luck. DND staff identified one set of remains as belonging to an uncle killed during World War I. Family members flew overseas to attend the ceremony when he was interred in the closest British military cemetery that had space.

Helen Mason's most recent books include A Refugee's Journey from Syria and A Refugee's Journey from Afghanistan, both Crabtree Publishing, 2017.

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