Politics

Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier marks its 20th anniversary

Canada's Tomb of the Unknown soldier, a Remembrance Day icon, recently turned 20 years old — but advances in DNA technology could make it a relic.

Such monuments date from a time when many soldiers' bodies could not be identified

A poppy is placed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier following the Remembrance Day ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Nov. 11, 2013. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Reverently showered with poppies every Remembrance Day, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa is a national symbol of Canadians' sacrifices in wars dating back more than a century. Not a lot of people know it's only 20 years old.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), which is responsible for the ornate sarcophagus at the foot of Canada's national war memorial, observed the monument's 20th anniversary event with a wreath ceremony on Thursday, using flowers picked from the British war cemetery where the unnamed soldier was originally buried.

"During these difficult times, it is more important than ever for Canadians to reflect on those who served and gave their lives so that we could live safely and freely," David Loveridge, CWGC's director for Canada and the Americas, said in a media statement.

"The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is one of CWGC's most prominent war graves that honours all those who died in anonymity serving Canada. We will continue to maintain this piece of Canada's history and remember those it represents."

David Loveridge, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission’s director for Canada and the Americas, lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Thursday, May 28, 2020, to mark the 20th anniversary of the monument. (CWGC - Contributed)

In 1998, the Liberal government of former prime minister Jean Chrétien asked the war graves commission to exhume and repatriate the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier who died in the First World War at the battle of Vimy Ridge.

Twenty years ago, the remains were laid in state at the Hall of Honour in the Centre Block of Parliament before being moved to a permanent location.

Canada was one of the last allied countries to establish a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Such monuments had their origins in the aftermath of the Great War, when an unprecedented number of war dead could not be buried under their own names because shelling had left their bodies unidentifiable.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II looks at a wreath to be laid on the grave of the Unknown Warrior at a service on the eve of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme at Westminster Abbey in London, June 30, 2016. (Niklas Hallen'n/The Associated Press)

The grave of the "Unknown Warrior" was established at Westminster Abbey in London on November 11, 1920. According to several military histories, the idea of burying an unidentified soldier with full honours originated with an Anglican chaplain named David Railton, who had served in France.

The next year, the French government set up the tomb of the "Soldat Inconnu" at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Americans were next, placing their tomb at Arlington National Cemetery, across the river from Washington, D.C., on November 11, 1921.

The United States carried on the tradition, placing unknown soldiers from subsequent conflicts — the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam — in the tomb.

Ironically, in the same year Canada began the process of establishing its tomb, the Pentagon was pressured through media reports and amateur sleuthing to use what was then cutting-edge DNA technology to identify its Vietnam-era unknown soldier — who turned out to be a pilot shot down in 1972.

A number of defence experts in the U.S. have argued that advances in DNA technology mean there likely will never be another unknown soldier in future wars.

In fact, Canada has been working for years now to identify unknown combatants from past conflicts. A section at Canada's Department of National Defence is dedicated to identifying remains from the two world wars which are still being unearthed in Europe.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

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.

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