Remains of WWI soldier found in France identified as New Brunswick farmer

A 28-year-old New Brunswick farmer who became a soldier and was killed in battle in France more than a century ago, will be laid to rest this summer after military forensic experts managed to identify his remains.

Pte. John (Jack) Henry Thomas, 28, of Birch Ridge, who was killed in 1917, will be buried this summer

Pte. John (Jack) Henry Thomas grew up in Birch Ridge with a brother and four sisters. (Bonnie Murphy)

A 28-year-old New Brunswick farmer who became a soldier and was killed in battle in northern France more than a century ago will be laid to rest this summer after military forensic experts managed to identify his remains.

Pte. John (Jack) Henry Thomas of Birch Ridge in Victoria County was a member of the 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion (New Brunswick), Canadian Expeditionary Force, during the First World War.

Thomas was killed on Aug. 19, 1917, during the Battle of Hill 70 — one day shy of his one-year anniversary of enlisting in Saint John. His body was never recovered.

Skeletal remains found at a construction site in Lens, France, nearly two years ago have been confirmed as being Thomas, the Department of National Defence and Canadian Armed Forces announced on Monday.

Thomas was killed during a 10-day battle in France, which was the first major action fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander in the First World War. (Bonnie Murphy)

"One hundred years after the end of the First World War, we honour and remember Private Thomas," Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement.

"We will never forget his sacrifice, or those of the nearly 61,000 brave Canadians who gave their lives in the First World War so that all of us might live in peace and security."

Thomas was identified by the casualty identification program's Casualty Identification Review Board last October through historical, genealogical, anthropological, archeological and DNA analysis.

His relatives have been notified and Veterans Affairs Canada is providing them with support as final arrangements are made, the statement said.

'Time has not lessened our gratitude'

Thomas will be buried by his regiment at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Loos British Cemetery outside Loos-en-Gohelle, France, during a public service on Aug. 23 at 1:30 p.m. Central European Time.

"We will lay him to rest with the honour he and his family deserve," Seamus O'Regan, the veterans affairs minister and associate minister of national defence, said in the statement.

"While a century has passed, time has not lessened our gratitude to Private Thomas. May he, and those who fell with him, never be forgotten."

Thomas was born on Jan. 25, 1889, to Henry Arthur Thomas and Jane Thomas in Chewale, South Wales, in the United Kingdom.

He grew up in Birch Ridge with his brother and four sisters and worked in community as a farmer.

He enlisted in Saint John with the 115th Canadian Infantry Battalion, CEF, on April 20, 1916, at the age of 27, and shipped out to Liverpool, England, on July 23, 1916.

After a couple of months of training, he joined the 112th Battalion at Camp Bramshott in England on Oct. 16, 1916.

The casualty identification program’s Casualty Identification Review Board managed to identify Thomas last fall, using historical, genealogical, anthropological, archaeological and DNA analysis. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

On Feb. 2, 1917, he was transferred to the 13th Reserve Battalion and then assigned to the 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion (New Brunswick), CEF, part of the Canadian Corps in France on April 20, 1917.

The Battle of Hill 70, the first major action fought by the Canadian Corps under a Canadian commander in the First World War, began on Aug. 15, 1917.

Thomas's battalion took part in the initial assault to secure the so-called Blue Line position before passing through the 22nd Battalion to secure the "Green Line" position. His battalion then rotated through defensive duties with other battalions.

Killed in counter-attack

Thomas was killed two days into the battle while his battalion was holding a forward position against German counter-attacks.

He was one of about 2,100 Canadians killed during the 10-day battle that saw the strategic high point of Hill 70 secured in Allied hands until the end of the war.

More than 1,300 of the soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Hill 70 have no known graves.

Thomas's name is engraved on the Vimy Memorial, which commemorates the more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War whose bodies were never recovered.

A collar badge from the 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion (New Brunswick), found with the remains of Thomas. (Directorate of History and Heritage)

In August 2016, skeletal remains of three soldiers were discovered during digging on the grounds of a plastic manufacturer in Lens, along with First World War artifacts, including general service buttons, ammunition, and a 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion (New Brunswick) collar badge.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission was notified and, with the support of French regional authorities, took possession of the remains and artifacts and transported them to one of its facilities in Beaurains, France.

"It has been our privilege to assist in returning Private Thomas to his countrymen, so that he might be buried with a name, and so that all who read his headstone will understand his sacrifice," said David Kettle, secretary general of the Canadian Agency of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and a retired brigadier-general.

The casualty identification program's Casualty Identification Review Board includes participants from the Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team and the Canadian Museum of History.

The 26th Canadian Infantry Battalion (New Brunswick) embarks for England from Saint John on the Caledonia on June 13, 1915. (Library and Archives Canada (MIKAN n. 3259630))