World

How a Canadian team solved a century-old mystery to lay WW I soldier to rest

Pte. John Lambert, a young soldier from Newfoundland who was killed during the First World War, has finally been laid to rest after a Canadian team uncovered his identity.

'It melts my heart … he deserved this,' says niece of Newfoundland soldier Pte. John Lambert

Canadian WWI soldier finally laid to rest in Belgium

2 months ago
Duration 2:10
The remains of Pte. John Lambert, who died during the First World War, were finally laid to rest in Belgium with his family in attendance for the ceremony.

A young soldier from Newfoundland killed during the First World War has finally been laid to rest by the Canadian military after a century-long mystery into his death. 

Archeologists unearthed the remains of Pte. John Lambert in a Belgian farmer's wheat field in 2016, almost 100 years after he died.

But it wasn't until years later that Lambert, who fought with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, was identified in an investigation that became one of the most complicated cases that a Canadian team with the Department of National Defence has ever solved. 

Lambert, 17, was also the youngest soldier that forensic anthropologist Sarah Lockyer has identified to date.

"He looks like a child in his photograph," said Lockyer, the casualty identification co-ordinator for the team. "When I opened up that file … that was incredibly striking to me."

Pte. John Lambert of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment lied about his age and enlisted at 16 to fight in the First World War. His family is grateful that a Canadian team helped identify his remains almost 100 years after he died. (Submitted by family )

Generations of questions

The family had shared a black and white photo with Lockyer that showed Lambert in his oversized uniform.

That same image has hung on walls in their family homes for generations.

But all they knew was that Lambert lied about his age to enlist at 16, then died while serving his country in 1917, according to a hand-written letter the military sent Lambert's father. 

Lambert's niece, Elizabeth Willar, never thought he'd be found. 

"It was hard to believe," she said. "Hard to get out of your head, it has been over 100 years."

This week, more than a dozen of Lambert's relatives from Newfoundland descended on the small town of Ypres, Belgium, for answers they've waited a lifetime to hear. 

Forensic anthropologist Sarah Lockyer, the casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence, stands among tombstones at a Belgium cemetery holding several artifacts found with the remains of Lambert and three other soldiers, including regiment identifiers. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Tracing a soldier's final days

Under a sea of umbrellas to guard against the pouring rain on Thursday, the group trudged toward the field where Lambert's remains were found to trace his final days. 

Archeologists guided Lambert's niece, Anne Smith, to the exact spot where they uncovered his remains on a similarly rainy day six years ago. 

A Belgian company had been surveying the land to lay underground pipes when it discovered a former battlefield filled with the remains of more than 60 people, including Lambert.

"It's surreal," said Smith while standing in the field. "It's a strange feeling. It's just like it's awesome one way and a bit sad."

Archeologists show Anne Smith to the location in a Belgian field Thursday where her uncle's remains were found in 2016. It took the team three years to identify his remains. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

Lockyer's team of about five people with Canada's casualty identification program work to identify soldiers by studying remains uncovered in old European battlefields by archeologists, farmers or construction workers.

The program began in 2007 and has investigated the cases of more than 35 unknown soldiers. More than 27,000 Canadian service members without a known grave are still missing from past wars. 

Through their research, the team learned that Lambert's regiment was part of a British attack known as the Battle of Langemarck. The attack targeted German positions to push the enemy toward Passchendaele Ridge.

Only slight gains were made as troops battled mud, rain and counter-attacks. Over just three hours, 27 people died as the British battalion advanced 1,000 yards. 

Lambert was one of the soldiers wounded during the attack who later died. 

Complicating efforts to identify Lambert: His remains were mixed with three other British soldiers who died in battle.

A metal identifier from Lambert's uniform was unearthed with his remains in the field in 2016. It was a key piece of evidence that helped determine who he was. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

A decayed metal clue 

The name of Lambert's regiment ended up being the key to the puzzle in 2019 to confirm his identity, said Lockyer. 

A decayed piece of metal that spelled N-F-L-D linked Lambert to the Newfoundland Regiment that later became the only colonial regiment to receive the prefix "Royal" during the First World War. 

"That was the only thing that really gave us an indication that we were dealing with somebody from Newfoundland," said Lockyer. 

Only 16 Newfoundlanders who fought in that battle were missing, which helped narrow the list. 

A DNA sample from Lambert's oldest living niece, military records and biological data — confirmed his identity and stunned Lambert's family. 

Lambert was laid to rest Thursday at the New Irish Farm Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery close to where he died, in an official Canadian military ceremony attended by members of his regiment and family. 

The Canadian Armed Forces laid Lambert to rest Thursday in Belgium's New Irish Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery. He was buried next to the three British soldiers he died with on the battlefield in 1917. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

'I feel peace now'

Lambert's family members placed pins in the shape of forget-me-nots on his grave. The blue flower is a symbol worn by many in Nfld. on Canada Day in memory of soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who died in the First World War.

Smith brought soil from the grave of Lambert's parents to sprinkle over his final resting place so he wouldn't be alone. Lambert was laid to rest with the three British soldiers who died with him.

"I feel peace now," said Smith. 

After more than a century of not knowing Lambert's ultimate fate, his family is happy that his identity has been uncovered and his remains are at rest, this time under a tombstone etched with his name.

"It's beautiful," said Lambert's niece, Phyllis Smith. "It melts my heart. It really does. It makes me happy, he deserved this."

Lambert's nieces Elizabeth Willar, left, and Phyllis Smith, right, travelled from St. John's to Ypres, Belgium, for the special military burial. (Ashley Burke/CBC News )

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ashley Burke

Senior reporter

Ashley Burke is a senior reporter with CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. Have a story idea? Email her at ashley.burke@cbc.ca

With files from Waqas Chughtai and Jean-Francois Bisson

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