British Columbia

Victoria man's search for family history helps identify remains of WW1 soldier

Pte. George Alfred Newburn died in battle on Aug. 15, 1917. He was 18 years old. His remains were not identified until over 100 years later when a Victoria man's search for his family history connected the dots.

Pte. George Alfred Newburn was 18 when he died in battle on Aug. 15, 1917

This photo shows No. 1 Company of the 7th Battalion in August 1916, around the time Pte. George Alfred Newburn joined the battalion. (The British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught’s Own))

The remains of a fallen World War I soldier found in France have been identified as those of an 18-year-old from Vancouver Island, with the help of an island resident who was trying to fill in the blanks on his family tree.

Pte. George Alfred Newburn died in the Battle of Hill 70 on Aug. 15, 1917. His remains were found near rue Léon Droux in the village of Vendin-le-Vieil in July 2017 — 100 years less a month after the battle.

The Canadian Department of National Defence said Newburn's remains were positively identified in February. 

But Ian Atherton helped connect the dots further.

The Victoria resident did not know much about his own lineage because his mother had been raised in an orphanage and had not disclosed their family history. So he began to do a little online research before he and his wife went to visit their daughter at school in Britain and took a family trip to Vimy Ridge in France. That's when he came across some material about Newburn.

The information Atherton found said Newburn was identified on the Vimy Ridge monument as missing in action. Then the Athertons saw it for themselves.

"To see his name on that huge monument took your breath away," said Maureen.

A year after their return from holiday, a research officer from Veteran's Affairs got in touch with the Athertons after noticing someone from the family had been searching government records on Newburn. The officer asked Ian to take a DNA test.

The test did not connect Ian and Newburn, and Ian thought that was the end of it until six weeks later when Veteran's Affairs contacted him to say they had tried a different technique and it proved Newburn was his uncle.

A statement released at the end of May said Newburn was a member of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, having enlisted at the age of 16.

Newburn will be buried by his regiment with full ceremonial military procedures at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's cemetery outside Loos-en-Gohelle, France, on June 12. The service will be open to the public.

The Athertons will be attending.

"It's exciting and it'll be very emotional," said Maureen.

Today, Newburn's battalion is known as the British Columbia Regiment, located in downtown Vancouver. A special guard from the drill hall will also attend the ceremony for Newburn.

Newburn was born on April 7, 1899, in London, England. The department said his family later immigrated to Esquimalt, B.C.

Around 2,100 Canadian soldiers were killed in the three-day Battle of Hill 70 in Lens, France, not far from Vimy Ridge. More than 1,300 of those soldiers have no known grave.

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