The great-grandfather must have known something.
He could not possibly have known that his four-year-old great-grandson would one day fly faster than the speed of sound, another day hurtle through space without crashing into meteorites – but he knew the quick, determined youngster would go places. He could not know, of course, that one of those places would be 400 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.
“We were living in Sarnia,” remembers the great-grandson, Col. Chris Hadfield. “We had a little house on Flamingo Drive. It was a rainy summer’s day and I was running outside and I saw him and ran into his arms. He told me I ran so fast that I’d run between the raindrops.”
The tall, elderly man with the English accent and the warm smile made the four-year-old future astronaut feel special that day. Being four, the boy had no idea then just how special was the great-grandfather.
Jack Hadfield had gambled on bringing his family to a new country that was then regarded very much as a colony. He had been in the army, a sniper and later a regimental sergeant-major, who in the late 1930s had been hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs to “whip the boys into shape.” He had fought in both wars. He and his younger brother, Vic, were both in the Battle of Hill 70 in August, 1917, which marked the first time the Canadian Corps fought as one, and the first time it was commanded by a Canadian, Lieutenant-General Arthur Currie. Six Canadian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration in the Commonwealth, for their gallantry at Hill 70.
Weeks after that battle, which is now said to have been pivotal in turning Canada from a British colony into a nation, Lance-Corporal Victor Hadfield, having just turned 27, fell during the Battle of Passchendaele. His body was never found. “I count myself lucky to have known him a little bit,” Col. Hadfield says of his great-grandfather. “He was a lovely man. I’m afraid my Great Uncle Vic is one of those whose bones are anonymous and will never be found.”
Some bones are found, however. While it is estimated that as many as 20,000 Canadian soldiers have no known grave, every so often a few more remains are uncovered by workers and machines intent on anything else but disturbing the dead.
In recent years, they have included the remains of 31 Canadian soldiers who died at Hill 70.
On Aug. 23, four of these fallen soldiers will be reinterred in the Loos British Cemetery, which was created by the Canadian Corps a month before the Battle of Hill 70 and now holds hundreds of the soldiers who died there – all within sight of a magnificent monument unveiled there last year.
Spearheading the identification of those soldiers has been a team, led by forensic anthropologist Sarah Lockyer, from the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage. To describe the task Dr. Lockyer’s group faced as daunting would be to vastly understate the situation. The Battle for Hill 70 was one of the fiercest of the First World War.
Both the French and English had failed in earlier attempts to take the city of Lens, an important coal centre in the north of France. Lt.-Gen. Currie’s insistence that his troops be allowed to first take the high ground near the town – a hill 70 metres above sea level – and then contain the German occupants was successful but costly. The Canadians held their position through 21 German counterattacks, and although they suffered less than half the casualties of the enemy, 1,877 Canadians lost their lives. Roughly half of those killed were never recovered to be given proper burials.
Identification of remains is never easy, but a variety of indicators – place found, badges, buttons, rings, watches – helps narrow the possibilities, before National Defence genealogists can begin the complex task of tracking potential relatives, who are then asked to give a DNA swab. If the DNA is a match to the DNA of the bones, a positive identification is made, and arrangements proceed to give the remains a proper military burial – near where they fell.
Dr. Lockyer and her colleagues have dealt with remains that range from 95-per-cent in place to bones that existed only “from the knees down.” Her group has at times contacted relatives, often distant, always generations removed, who “had no interest at all” in what the team had found. One relative of the four soldiers who will be reinterred this month acknowledges that her first reaction was that she was being lured into a “scam,” and she refused to take the call. It was only when a subsequent phone message mentioned her great-uncle by name that she decided to call back – and will now be travelling to France to attend the burial of the relative she never knew.
Most relatives, however, have been immediately eager to participate. And for Dr. Lockyer and her colleagues, the ability to help establish long-lost connections is gratifying. When a DNA link is solidly connected to living relatives, the bones “become people,” she says. “Until then, we keep that wall up and deal with human remains like it’s a job.”
Once arrangements have been made – the Canadian government pays for two relatives to attend the reinterment; other family members must pay their own way – Dr. Lockyer travels with the remains and attends the burials. “That,” she says, “is when you allow yourself to feel a lot more.”
She sees the effect on the family and also on the soldier’s regiment, which is always represented. The Moncton native says without hesitation that she has broken down herself.
Sergeant Archie Wilson will have plenty of family on hand at the Loos British Cemetery this month. The Scottish-born barber, whose remains were uncovered in August of 2011 during a munitions-clearing operation, enlisted in Winnipeg – as did two of his brothers, John and Gavin. None survived the war.
Several of their family members can remember the photograph of the three lost sons that their grandmother and great-grandmother kept. His niece, who lives in Saskatchewan, turns 100 in October and cannot attend the ceremony, for health reasons. But Holly Chong and Heather Aldrich, great-grand-nieces from Sundre, Alta., are booked to go.
The name Archie has now been passed down through five generations, and the large family is relieved that, at last, the original Archie has been found: Seven years ago, the family was asked for DNA samples regarding other remains that had been found at Hill 70, and when news came back that there was “no match,” they were devastated. “It was almost like he had died again,” Ms. Chong says.
Years later, Dr. Lockyer called again. New remains had been studied – and this time the match was perfect. “We were so elated,” Ms. Chong says.
Their cousin Gavin Wood – named after Archie’s brother – is going over from Regina. “This,” he says, “is a mind-boggling experience.”
“We were such a close family,” Ms. Chong says of their childhood. Eventually, however, families moved far away and, as she says with no small surprise, “We haven’t seen each other in – what? – 50 years or more.”
“Ridiculous,” Mr. Wood says. “We’ve even found three cousins in Manitoba we didn’t know we had. Now we have to go to France to get together.”
Bonnie Murphy doesn’t even have to be at the Loos grave site to break down in tears. She does so over the phone from New Jersey, where she lives, talking about the great-uncle she never knew. Pvt. John (Jack) Henry Thomas, a New Brunswicker, was killed on Aug. 19, 1917, at the age of 28, and was found in 2016 when workers were digging on the grounds of a plastic manufacturer.
When Ms. Murphy discovered a voicemail from “the Government of Canada” on her phone, she thought perhaps she had lost some important papers while attending a wedding in Vancouver. When she learned why Dr. Lockyer had been calling, in search of a DNA sample, she was puzzled.
“Why me?” she asked. Genealogy, she was told: The Government of Canada thinks you might be a relative of a man you never knew who died a century ago.
“They sent me a kit, and I did it and sent it back,” she says. “I knew my grandmother had lost a brother, but all I had was a picture of him. Every Veterans Day, I would post it alongside photos of my brothers, my dad and my grandfather, who had all been in the service.”
Speaking of Pvt. Thomas, she says: “He was just a kid. My children are older than he was, and his life just stopped.”
Five of Pvt. Thomas’s now-American relatives – Ms. Murphy, her sister, their brother, a daughter and a niece – will make the journey to Loos for the reinterment. “It’s such a wonderful story,” she says.
And for some, a story of surprise. Catherine Manicom, of Guelph, had no idea that someone in the family had fought in the Great War when Dr. Lockyer contacted her regarding Pvt. Henry Edmonds Priddle, who was killed on the second day of the Battle of Hill 70. Age 33 and married, the broom-maker had enlisted in Winnipeg; his remains were uncovered in the spring of 2011 during munitions clearing.
Now, Ms. Manicom and her 84-year-old mother, Margaret Murray, and other family members are headed for France. They have asked that their ancestor’s marker bear the words “In our lives for a short time, in our hearts forever.”
The white-crossed cemetery at Loos holds hundreds of Canadian soldiers who died there – and will, with the Aug. 23 ceremony, also become the final resting place of Ottawa-born Pvt. William Del Donegan, 20, who enlisted in Winnipeg and was identified through a wristwatch found with remains during a munitions-clearing operation in 2010. Relatives of Pvt. Donegan will be in attendance at his reinterment.
The cemetery is within sight of the magnificent monument that was unveiled last year on the centennial of both Vimy and Hill 70. It sits in an eight-hectare park leased to Canada for 99 years at a cost of one euro by the municipality of Loos en Gohelle. The memorial has been costed at $12.8-million, all of which is being raised privately by volunteers, with the government of France helping considerably by waiving certain taxes and import duties.
The monument comprises an obelisk just over 20 metres high, its apex sitting, appropriately, at 70 metres above sea level. It features the sword of sacrifice, the words “CANADA 1917” and is the main focus of the General Sir Arthur Currie Amphitheatre. Visitors reach it by following a twisting, slowly rising pathway that is embedded with 1,877 maple leafs, one for each fallen soldier.
Col. Hadfield, who serves as the national spokesman for the Hill 70 Memorial Project, understands perfectly why the reinterment and military funeral would mean so much to those who could not possibly have known the family member being buried again.
“It means both nothing and everything,” he says. “Once a person is dead, that person doesn’t care any more. They’re not coming back. We all die. So you can be just brutal about it and say the remains don’t mean anything, they’re just like your cast-off clothing. You have to decide how important the body is in itself.”
Col. Hadfield sometimes wonders about his Uncle Vic, lying somewhere in that hell that was the Passchendaele battlefield. “If his remains were to be found after they’ve been lying in the dirt for 100 years,” he says, “it wouldn’t matter to the remains. It wouldn’t matter much to whoever dug them up. But it would mean a lot to my family.
"Psychologically, it can mean everything. Especially if it is someone who was lost while they were away, and who was lost in defence of a higher purpose. Someone whose family was in great fear that they wouldn’t return – and then they didn’t.”
He knows this personally. Not just because of his Great-Great-Uncle Vic, but through his profession as a fighter pilot, a test pilot and, of course, an astronaut, during which he has lost several friends, whether at war, in preparation for war, or in setting out to explore this small part of the universe. He also knows that, in those tragedies – “It’s just that violent” – there will usually be absolutely nothing left of the body, nothing at all to bury.
“So finding these remains physically,” he says “it’s minor – but mentally, and emotionally, and yes, historically, it could not be more significant.”
For a vignette from the audio tour of Hill 70, visit here.
Further details on the identification program can be found at the Government of Canada website.