A Nova Scotian's quest to make sure no fallen soldier is 'left forgotten'
Steve St-Amant uncovered the identities of 2 British airmen shot down and buried in France
On Oct. 12, 1916, two British airmen were flying in the Battle of the Somme when they were struck by artillery from their own side. Their plane folded up and fell to earth.
By the time the men's bodies were discovered years later, nobody knew who they were. For the next 100 years, they were known only as British airmen of the Great War.
Thanks to the dedication of a retired Canadian naval officer, that's no longer the case.
Steve St-Amant, who lives in Boutiliers Point, N.S., came across the two graves in 2015 while on vacation in France with his family.
"They deserve to be remembered and I think if we can name them, we should," said St-Amant, who is among a growing number of amateur historians who, thanks to technology, are unearthing the stories of unidentified soldiers who died in combat.
"Nobody should be left forgotten," he said.
'Better pair I never knew'
St-Amant figured the men must have flown together since they were buried side-by-side. There was also another key identifier: both were awarded the Military Cross just before the crash.
Because the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the intergovernmental organization that marks and maintains cemeteries, digitized many of its First World War records in 2014, St-Amant said all it took were a few hours online to track down the airmen.
They always worked together, and a better pair I never knew.- O.C. of the Squadron
Soon, he was convinced the men were pilot Leonard Kidd and observer Fenton Phillips.
"They always worked together, and a better pair I never knew," stated the head of their squadron in a letter after they died.
"I think the fact that his name is on a gravestone brings out the enormity of the sacrifice that these people made," said Julian Ironside, Kidd's second cousin twice removed who lives in the Dordogne region of France.
"Eventually, 100 years later, somebody has had the time and the willingness to research and find out who [he] really is. I find that very moving."
Ironside met St-Amant this fall at the site where Kidd and Phillips' plane went down. Now, it's a farmer's field, but there are still huge pieces of metal scattered in the area.
"It's still quite emotional because I'm an ex-pilot myself so I know about crashes," said Ironside.
On a mission
Thousands of miles away from France, St-Amant pulls up a map of the crash site on his computer. One wall of his small study is lined with books about the First and Second World Wars, and new ones often arrive in the mail.
St-Amant says he's always loved history. In addition to Kidd and Phillips, he's also identified two Canadians who fought and died in the war.
"He's a man with a mission," said Peter Selley, a local historian from Bow, England, where Fenton Phillips grew up. "When he gets going I think it's probably hard to distract him."
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission receives submissions from researchers like St-Amant, determines if their conclusion is correct and then marks the graves.
The Directorate of History and Heritage, part of Canada's Department of National Defence, does the work of actually exhuming and analyzing the bones of unidentified Canadian soldiers whose remains have been discovered during construction projects, road work or farming activity, often near battlefields.
But St-Amant says there's little being done by these groups to name those already buried in unmarked graves.
"Now we have the ability to go back and do the research and tie up loose strings and bring a lot of these guys out from the cold. I think it should happen," he said.
29 Canadians identified so far
Since forming in 2007, the Directorate of History and Heritage, has identified the remains of 29 Canadians and helped to identify another 19 people from other countries.
Sarah Lockyer, casualty identification co-ordinator, is in charge of doing the forensic work. She says construction projects in France, especially around Vimy Ridge, have resulted in more calls about unidentified remains.
Regulations prevent the forensic teams from exhuming bodies once they are buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery, she said.
"This is where the historians come in and the historical aspect comes in, where these individuals go through the archives, they go through mountains and mountains of paperwork," said Lockyer, who is working on 28 cases right now.
Currently there are more than 27,000 Canadian war dead with no known graves from the First World War, the Second World War and the United Nations Operations in Korea, or Korean Conflict.
On Oct. 12 of this year, 101 years after Leonard Kidd and Fenton Phillips were shot down, their names were added to a cemetery in France.
The rededication ceremony was held at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in the Somme Valley. St-Amant was there along with relatives of Kidd and Phillips.
"In some ways I do feel connected to them now, and especially now with the linkage to the families and the friendships that we've formed," St-Amant said.