Trooper Henry George Johnston was identified 75 years after the Second World War, buried overseas. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Virtual War Memorial)

Trooper Henry George Johnston was identified 75 years after the Second World War, buried overseas. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Virtual War Memorial)

Remembrance Day: Soldiers ‘found’ and a local work in progress

Late last year, in November and December, the remains of two soldiers were officially identified

By T.W. Paterson

I’ve described how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) continues its global program of both maintaining existing graves and providing burials for newly discovered remains. Late last year, in November and December, the remains of two soldiers, a Newfoundland soldier killed in Belgium in 1917, and a Canadian killed in the Netherlands in the Second World War, were officially identified.

Just 16, John Lambert, of St. John’s, Nfld., had to lie about his age to join the Newfoundland Regiment; he was just 17 when he was reported missing in action, Aug. 16, 1917, in the Battle of Langemarck, north of Ypres.

In April 2016 his remains and those of two British soldiers were unearthed during an archaeological dig near the town of Langemark. A Newfoundland shoulder badge pointed to Lambert’s country of origin but that was just the beginning of the identification process.

Sarah Lockyer, a forensic scientist who works as a casualty identification coordinator with the Department of National Defence’s history and heritage department, thought chances of identification were good because only 16 men were listed as missing after that engagement. It took provincial archivist Greg Walsh a year to trace 18 descendants of the missing soldiers, a task made more difficult by Lambert having falsified his recruitment age.

Another three years, with the aid of the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre in the UK, were required to positively ID Lambert using DNA. Once it was confirmed, a padre and the commanding officer of the Newfoundland Regiment broke the news to family descendants.

The Canadian Armed Forces has since confirmed that Pte. Lambert will be interred next summer in the CWGC New Irish Farm Cemetery in West-Vlaanderen, Belgium.

As of last December, the federal Casualty Identification Program was working to identify 45 sets of remains from the First World War. On average, the CWGC takes charge of 40 sets of human remains each year, most of them unearthed in northern France by construction crews. (Remains from the Second World War are also discovered from time to time.)

In total, about 27,000 Canadians remain ‘missing’ after the two great wars and the Korean conflict.

Last December, Trooper Henry George Johnston was officially identified after 75 years in a known but unidentified grave — in the CWGC’s Mook War Cemetery in the Netherlands. His headstone had identified him only as “a soldier from a Canadian regiment” with the date of death. The young Albertan was killed in Operation Blackcock, a drive to force the Germans across a river in the Netherlands.

Armed with a date and the fact that the choice of cemetery had been dictated by the area of Johnston’s death, anthropologist Lockyer, who’d identified the remains of Pte. Lambert, took up the chase by looking for “historical information…like war diaries, grave concentration and registration reports, casualty cards…” As before, his identification was confirmed by DNA once family descendants had been traced. His headstone is to be rededicated.

“It’s all about returning a name to an individual who has remained an unknown person,” Lockyer explained. “This individual died in combat, gave his life for Canada and the Canadian Forces at the time. “…We kind of owe it to this individual to try as much as we possibly can to return his name.”

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Much closer to home — at All Saints’ Cemetery in Westholme — we have our own ongoing quest for information about a Cowichan war veteran. In this case we know his name, Henry Cannock Coppock, his dates of birth and death, 1863 and 1938, and we know where he’s buried.

But that’s where the mystery begins; a mystery Mike Bieling of the Old Cemeteries Society and the White Crosses program, has been trying to solve for some time now. Coppock’s in the cemetery’s burial register and he could have been a Boer War vet or an older First World War veteran but, to date, Mike has “found no Canadian record of his service as Henry or Harry.

“The Genealogical Society’s burial lists show Harry Rood Coppock (1899-1973) as buried at All Saints’, too, but the church has no record of him being there and there’s no grave marker. His death certificate only notes that he was an ‘invalid.’ He could have been a WWI or WWII veteran, but I couldn’t find a Canadian record of his service either.”

He’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can provide information on either of the Coppocks; in the meantime, he’s seen to it that Henry C. has a white cross on the family plot.

Remembrance Day