No soldier forgotten: keeping track of Canada's war graves

When Canadians think of the nation's war dead, they often imagine military cemeteries in Europe. But a lot of Canadians who fought in the 20th century's wars are buried here at home.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains soldiers' burial sites - no matter where they are

Commonwealth War Graves director for Canada and the Americas, David Loveridge, visits the grave of Sapper Abraham Sowers in the Scotland Baptist Cemetery, Brant County, Ont. Nov. 4, 2019 (Contributed/Commonwealth War Graves Commssion )

Sapper Abraham Sowers was wounded at Vimy Ridge, the site of the iconic First World War battle.

He caught shrapnel in the face from an exploding shell and was evacuated to England, but later returned to France to serve with a combat engineering company digging tunnels underneath the front.

It was there Sowers developed a nasty cough that put him in hospital once before the end of the war. He carried it home with him to Canada.

Pulmonary tuberculosis killed him in Hamilton, Ont. on Oct. 15, 1919. He was 31.

Sapper Abraham Sowers died on Oct. 15, 1919 of an illness related to his service in the First World War. He is one of 19,000 Canadian soldiers who died of wounds following both the First and Second World Wars and are buried in Canada. (Veterans Affairs Canada)

Sowers is one of hundreds of Canadian soldiers wounded on the battlefields of Europe who died and were buried at home.

A century later, his grave is still maintained in Canada by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission — part of a complex, far-flung, multinational effort to ensure no soldier's sacrifice is forgotten.

David Loveridge, the commission's director for Canada and the Americas, visited Sowers' grave on Nov. 5 to check on its condition.

New to the job, he was startled to learn that there are thousands of war graves outside of the old European battlefields where people might expect to find them.

"The fact that there are over 20,000 of them from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission perspective is a surprise to me, but I think for most Canadians it is a surprise," Loveridge said.

The vast majority of those Commonwealth war graves — 19,000 — can be found here in Canada. They're legacies of the First World War, the Second World War and the Korean conflict."

It's the commission's job to look after them "in perpetuity," Loveridge said. "Most Canadians would not realize there is a Commonwealth war grave in their local cemetery. It doesn't matter where you are across Canada."

The commission began its work in 1917 in Europe, but the organization has since grown into a global operation, caring for the graves and memorials of 1.7 million Commonwealth men and women.

Its work has spread across every continent (except Antarctica) and includes graves in some of the most remote corners of the world. Loveridge said he was amazed to find his office is responsible for maintaining gravesites as far afield as the Falkland Islands, off Argentina.

Commonwealth War Graves Director for Canada and the Americas David Loveridge visits the grave of Sapper Abraham Sowers in the Scotland Baptist Cemetery, Brant County, Ont. Nov. 4, 2019 (Contributed/Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

"Each one of those headstones represents someone's son, someone's father. There's children involved, brothers and sisters," said Loveridge. "When you start to read at the bottom of the headstone, the inscription that's at the bottom — which in most cases [was] provided by the family of that soldier — it really starts to hit home."

Abraham Sowers left behind a wife, Lennie (Liny), and three daughters: Francis, Florence and Lorie.


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.


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