A century later, Canada is still identifying its WWI dead

Missing First World War soldiers comprise the bulk of the caseload for the casualty identification branch at National Defence.

National Defence historian says soldiers 'no longer lost in time'

In April 1917, Germans bring in a wounded Canadian soldier at Arleux, France. The remains of James Milne, a Canadian soldier who died at Arleux, were only recently identified by scientists at the National Defence Department. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

Within hours of Canadian troops securing Vimy Ridge 100 years ago, James Milne was promoted to sergeant amid the smoke, snow and blood of the fresh battlefield.

His unit, the 10th Battalion of the 1st Canadian Division, took a pounding during the historic assault on April 9, 1917. 

But he lived to fight on, at least for another few days.

Milne, a recent Scottish immigrant to Canada, died in what was, proportionally, a much smaller fight with the Germans that took place just east of Vimy on April 20.

The battalion was ordered to eliminate a bulge in the line at the village of Arleux.

It was one of those dirty, plodding, necessary little operations that were part of the daily business of war in between the major battles that history more vividly remembers.

At some point during the first morning of the attack, at the wire on the north side of the village, Milne was swallowed up by the mist of history. 

And he became, until just recently, one of thousands of missing.

His remains were unearthed a few years ago by a French archaeological team preparing to build a new subdivision in the bucolic, former coal mining region of northeast France.

Even though 100 years have passed since the industrial-scale slaughter of the First World War, the conflict takes up the bulk of the caseload for the casualty identification branch at National Defence.

"There are many more soldiers from the First World War who remain missing with no known grave than those from the Second World War," said Dr. Sarah Lockyer, who conducts the forensics and DNA tests to try to match up remains with descendents.

Of the 25 cases on her desk, only one is from Second World War.

The search for Milne's identity was made less complicated by the fact that few Canadian units had moved through that area, and some of the artifacts found with the remains, such as a metal identification disc, provided vital clues.

Dr. Sarah Lockyer and Carl Kletke, who work to identify the remains of Canada's First World War dead, at Vimy Ridge. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Carl Kletke, a Defence Department historian, says it's important work to piece together and reconstruct the lives of the missing.

"That soldier is no longer lost in time, if you will," he said. "Now he has a known grave, as opposed to an unknown grave."

Milne had no wife or children, but Kletke says that in some cases there are living relatives to contact, many of whom are surprised to learn their father, grandfather, brother or uncle has been found and identified.

"It is rewarding, particularly if there is family that remembers them. That part is very moving, particularly if we can reconnect them," he said.

Beyond the personal connection, identification of the missing is important for the units to which the men belonged, Kletke added.

In Milne's case, the Calgary Highlanders, which originated with the 10th Battalion, are able to claim him as a long-lost brother.

The identification disc found with the remains was the first clue, but it needed to be cleaned up and the service number compared with the roll of missing. Investigators were lucky because Milne had taken the extra step of getting a disc carved in metal because the army-issued ones were made of a tough cloth that dissolved over time.

It was then over to Lockyer who had to develop, based upon the condition of the bones, an approximate forensic description.

Milne's story is lost; no photos of him

The fact that Milne had no descendents made the investigation more complex. It was tough to reconstruct his individual story because there was no one left to tell it.

"There isn't much to know. There isn't a lot in his personnel file," said Kletke.

"His individual story is lost, but through him we can hopefully learn a great deal about other people, the many young men like him who came to Canada and lost their lives for something they probably believed in."

It shows the war was a continuous event.— Carl Kletke, National Defence historian

There isn't even a photo of Milne.

Researchers do know he was a labourer who came to Canada from Scotland, presumably with the hope of a better future, and ended up joining the Canadian Corps. At the time, the army was comprised entirely of volunteers.

The fact he lived through the horrors of Vimy only to be killed a few days later is tragic, but not surprising to Kletke.

"It shows the war was a continuous event," he said. 

"There were the great battles like Vimy and later that summer at Hill 70, but in between there are all these smaller battles that need to be fought to secure important points like the village of Arleux. They're just as important, these small battles, although they might not have the same cachet as battles like Vimy."

Milne will be buried at a cemetery outside Arleux-en-Gohelle later this year by his regiment.


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.