WWI soldier's effects return to Edmonton

The personal effects of a Canadian soldier who died on a French battlefield in 1918 have been returned to his family at an Edmonton ceremony.
John Willoughby looks on during Friday's ceremony at the Edmonton Garrison. (CBC)
The personal effects of a Canadian soldier who died on a battlefield in France in 1918 were returned to his family at a ceremony in Edmonton on Friday.

Pte. John Willoughby was a member of the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) when he was killed in a cavalry charge during the battle of Moreuil Wood in the First World War.

A French farmer named Jean-Paul Brunel discovered Willoughby's remains in the 1980s and made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the family. They only learned the details of his death two years ago when documentary film producers tracked them down in Alberta.

On Friday, Willoughby's great-nephew from Drayton Valley, Alta., who is also named John Willoughby, received remnants of the fallen soldier's uniform, some bullets and other artifacts at a ceremony at the Strathcona's Steele Barracks in Edmonton.

The farmer who discovered the soldier's remains, Jean-Paul Brunel, was in Edmonton for Friday's ceremony. (CBC)
Brunel was also on hand to present Willoughby with a surprise gift — a medallion from the village of Moreuil, inscribed with his great uncle's year of birth and the date of the battle in which he lost his life.

"Just blown away," Willoughby said afterward. "This is really some very heartfelt thanks from the people of Moreuil for the contributions that our Canadian soldiers made so long ago."

The return of the artifacts to Canada provided closure for his family, Willoughby said.

"Part of him is home now and the Willoughby family can certainly look with pride on this presentation that Mr. Brunel has given us. We can be very proud of my uncle's achievements overseas," he said.

Death a mystery for years

For Willoughby, the death of the great uncle he was named after has always been a mystery.

"We had no idea where he was buried, what battle he was involved in," he said, until the producers of the History Television series Finding the Fallen provided the missing pieces.

Willoughby had no idea he would be receiving this medal honouring his great-uncle from the village of Moreuil. ((CBC))
Willoughby was 28 on March 30, 1918, when he was killed in what some historians believe was the last cavalry charge ever carried out during the First World War.

The sabres of the 75 riders of Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) under Lt. Gordon Flowerdew and another force from the Royal Canadian Dragoons, both elements of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, were pitted against the machine-guns of the German army.

The charge and subsequent savage hand-to-hand combat were credited with halting the Germans' rapid advance, but more than half of the Canadians were killed or wounded.

Willoughby's remains lay on the battlefield about 135 kilometres north of Paris for nearly seven decades until they were discovered by Brunel. It would be 20 more years before the television producers tracked down the fallen soldier's great-nephew and flew him to France.

The artifacts include bullets and remnants of Willoughby's uniform. ((CBC))
Willoughby said he would never forget standing in front of the monument erected by Brunel in honour of his great-uncle.

"I phoned my Dad right from that spot that day," he recalled, adding he couldn't remember exactly what he told his father. "It's very emotional."

In an interview with the CBC's Andrea Huncar on Thursday, Willoughby said he was excited about Friday's ceremony.

"Some of my other family members are going to be there and they certainly have a keen interest in this since the documentary aired, and  all are anxious to meet Jean-Paul and see what he's bringing over for us of Uncle Jack's to hand over to the family."

With files from the CBC's Andrea Huncar