For almost a century, the remains of three Canadians killed in the First World War lay buried in an empty piece of land between a hospital and a prison in a small township in northern France.
They were discovered in September 2010 when a construction crew started digging. The only clues to the remains’ identities were buttons bearing the insignia of the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s 16th Battalion, and a shoulder badge with the words “Canadian Scottish.”
Now, a seven-year process made possible by historical records and science has told third- and fourth-generation descendants of Pte. William Del Donegan, Pte. Henry Edmonds Priddle and Sgt. Archibald Wilson where their relatives were laid to rest.
The three soldiers from Manitoba died during the Battle of Hill 70, which began on Aug, 15, 1917. They were publicly identified on Tuesday.
“As a forensic anthropologist, it’s about returning their identities,” said Sarah Lockyer. “For 100 years they remained faceless and nameless, and now they no longer are, and families can have a place to pay their respects.”
Lockyer is the co-ordinator for the Department of National Defence’s Casualty Identification Program, which seeks to identify remains from among the more than 27,000 Canadians killed in the first and second world wars and the Korean conflict who have no known graves. Since 2007, the program has helped identify 28 Canadian soldiers and 19 soldiers from other countries. Lockyer herself has worked on 31 sets of remains since she joined the program in 2016, and has confirmed the identities of six.
The process of identifying remains has no time limit, and can be complicated by numerous factors, including how long the body has been buried, and where; what type of soil it was buried in; how much water runs through the soil; and how much vegetation has grown over the site.
But first, local police have to rule out the possibility that the remains are the result of a domestic homicide rather than a war death. Only then are they transferred to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission facility in France, where Lockyer begins an anthropological analysis.
The first step is to determine the age and height of the soldier, two facts that are listed in every soldier’s military file. A historian helps collect information about people who may have served — and died — in the area. Any artifacts found help narrow this list, as do genealogy, ancestry records and the study of teeth.
Catherine Manicom, 60, of Guelph was asked to provide a DNA sample two years ago to help identify Priddle, her great-great uncle. “I didn’t know him,” she said, “but I’m very honoured and it’s very emotional to discover family members through this process.”
Gavin Wood, 74, whose great uncle was Wilson, had to track down his father’s oldest female cousin to provide a DNA sample. She was hospitalized with dementia and Wood didn’t know her very well.
“The only thing I knew was I was named after Gavin Wilson, who died in the war,” Wood told the Star from Regina. “This whole process was literally finding a needle at the bottom of a haystack,”
Once the forensic review is done, Lockyer takes her findings to the Casualty Review Board, where some 12 people, including military, forensic, genealogy and teeth experts, along with some civilians, review her work. The group then votes on whether or not the information collected properly identifies the soldier.
It has to be a unanimous decision. And in the cases of Donegan, Priddle and Wilson, it was.
“It goes to show current soldiers if something happened to them, there would be somebody doing everything they could to identify them and give them a proper burial,” Lockyer said.
Now that they have names, the three Canadian soldiers have histories, too.
William Del Donegan was a railway clerk before he enlisted in the forces on Feb. 21, 1916, at age 18. His last living descendants are two sisters in the United States who had never heard of him, one of whom is 100 years old and lives in Virginia.
Henry Edmonds Priddle was a Winnipeg broommaker and husband who enlisted on April 1, 1916, at age 31. His nickname was “Doc,” Manicom said, but she doesn’t know why. He was married in 1910 and had a baby that died at 9 days old, she said.
Archibald Wilson was one of 11 children. He left Scotland and came to Canada in 1910 with five of his siblings. He was a barber, and hoped to one day own a farm in Manitoba. He enlisted on Dec. 18, 1914, at age 22, and was promoted to sergeant two years later. Two of his brothers — one of whom Gavin Wood is named after — were also killed in the war, leaving behind their only sister, who was Wood’s grandmother.
All three men fought in the Battle of Hill 70, which was the first major action fought by Canadian soldiers under the command of a Canadian, Sir Arthur Currie.
Hill 70 was a strategic, treeless high ground, 70 metres above sea level, that overlooked the city of Lens. At the time, the hill protected the German trenches that ran across the city.
Despite 21 German counterattacks, the Canadians took the hill, and kept it until the end of the war. The victory came months after the battle at Vimy Ridge and cemented the reputation of Canadian soldiers as an effective military force on the Western Front.
An estimated 25,000 Germans were killed or wounded in the 10-day battle. The Canadians lost around 2,000 soldiers The three men identified Tuesday died on the second day of the assault as their battalion faced a heavy German bombardment.
“It’s highly likely they may have known each other, although we can never know for sure,” Lockyer said. “I’d like to think they did. And now they’ll be buried together. It’s a nice full circle.”
For more than 80 years, their names have been written on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, some 15 kilometres away from where their remains were found.
“While there is no way to sufficiently thank them for their sacrifice, we forever hold them in our memories,” Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a statement, paying tribute to the men.
They will be buried this August at the Loos British Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France, where hundreds of other soldiers who died capturing Hill 70 were also laid to rest.
“You can hardly believe it after 100 years that they can identify the remains and they would throw a fairly significant funeral for the families,” said Wood, who will attend the ceremony with his younger brother.
Manicom is accompanying her mother to the memorial. Four other descendants, ages 85 to 92, are coming as well — relatives Manicom has never met and didn’t know about.
“It’s thrilling to be connected with someone you didn’t know existed before,” she said. “It’s amazing what DNA can tell you.”