Century-old remains of Manitoba soldier to be laid to rest in France

The remains of Manitoba soldier Pte. Reginald Joseph Winfield Johnston, discovered at a construction site in France 100 years after he died in the First World War, will be given a full military burial in a French cemetery next week, along with those of Sgt. Harold Wilfred Shaughnessy of New Brunswick.
Reginald Johnston enlisted in the Canadian military in 1916 at the age of 20. He was killed the following year in the Battle of Hill 70. (Department of National Defence)

The remains of a First World War soldier from Manitoba will be given a full military burial in France next week, near where his bones lay for almost 100 years before being discovered.

Pte. Reginald Joseph Winfield Johnston will be laid to rest on Aug. 24 at Loos British Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France. Another fallen Canadian, Sgt. Harold Wilfred Shaughnessy of New Brunswick, will be interred at the same ceremony.

Johnston, originally from Fairfield, Man., enlisted in 1916 at the age of 20. The member of the 16th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force died on Aug. 15 or 16, 1917 in the Battle of Hill 70.

However, his remains weren't discovered until  2011, when a munitions-clearing operation at a construction site uncovered his bones in the village of Vendin-le-Vieil in northern France.

Local French police were notified, who then contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A forensic anthropologist narrowed down the possibilities and tracked down Johnston's great niece, Lorraine Leniuk, who provided her DNA to see whether there was a match.

Before Christmas last year, she was told the remains were Johnston's. 

The Battle of Hill 70 Memorial Park is set to open to the public this month, close to the site of a historic First World War victory for Canadians a century ago. (Hill 70 Memorial Project)
"All of us are sort of overwhelmed by everything," Leniuk told CBC News when asked how her family has dealt with the news over the past year. Leniuk and several cousins will be making the trip to France to take part not only in Johnston's burial, but also in  the Hill 70 Memorial Parkwill, opening Aug. 22.

"We're all put here for a purpose," Leniuk said, "and my purpose is to journey to France and to see him laid to rest, and to thank him for his service and my freedom, living in the beautiful country of Canada."

Leniuk said in order to reach the site, she has to take two planes, a train and a vehicle. She said she plans to stay two weeks.

This is not her first pilgrimage to France — she attended the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in 2007. 

"It was powerful, how awesome and grateful they all are," Leniuk recalled. "Until you actually go and see the sacrifice that so many made, [until] you're walking amongst the stones, you just don't understand. And the cemeteries there, they're just immaculate, no weeds anywhere."

Shaughnessy of St. Stephen, N.B. will also be buried that day. He, too, died in the Battle of Hill 70, and his remains were also discovered near Vendin-le-Vieil in 2011 and identified late last year.

Leniuk said  Johnson and Shaughnessy will be buried among their comrades. 

We're all put here for a purpose, and my purpose is to journey to France and to see him laid to rest, and to thank him for his service and my freedom.- Lorraine Leniuk

Family members, along with representatives from the Canadian government and the Canadian Armed Forces, will gather in France on Aug. 24 at 1 p.m. to bury the two soldiers. ​

The Battle of Hill 70 took place four months after Vimy Ridge. About 100,000 Canadian soldiers fought there, and ultimately 1,877 Canadian soldiers died. It was the first time Canadian forces were led in the First World War by a Canadian commander. 

The final resting place of more than 11,000 Canadians killed in action in France is unknown. 

With files from Marianne Klowak