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Missing Canadian soldier finally laid to rest in France after being killed in WW I battle

A long missing WW I soldier with ties to Calgary has been found, identified and finally laid to rest in France this month.

Private Harry Atherton was reported missing and presumed dead on Aug. 15, 1917 — the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, France.

In June 2017, human skeletal remains were found in France by a munitions clearing group on land destined for construction.

After a lengthy identification process, those remains and other clues like a damaged identification badge were determined to be those of Atherton.

A solider kneels in uniform beside a grave stone in a graveyard with many flowers.
Major David Peabody at the grave of his uncle, Thomas J. Gorman, who was killed in 1916. Peabody travelled to France as part of a contingent of the Calgary Highlanders to help lay three Canadian WW I soldier to rest. (Submitted by Dave Peabody)

Last week, Atherton was buried with military honours in the Loos British Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France, alongside two other Canadian soldiers who had recently been identified.

The military funeral was attended by a contingent of the Calgary Highlanders, his perpetuating unit, and by relatives of the soldiers.

Major David Peabody, operations officer with the Highlanders, a Calgary-based reserve regiment with the Canadian Army, travelled from Calgary to Lens for the funeral.

“I think for us as soldiers, it’s really meaningful for us to feel that after that time has passed, Canada is still looking at ensuring that these people get a proper burial and are taken care of, that they’re not forgotten,” he said.

Peabody says he had a conversation with a distant relative of Atherton’s at the funeral, and they discussed a set of pen knives found on Atherton when he was rediscovered.

“One of the family members just, his eyes wide. And he said, ‘I’ve got a collection of pen knives. And it’s come down through the family,'” said Peabody.

“I think the weight of what this meant hit him. So watching that happen was something special.”

Finding lost soldiers

The discovery of Atherton, and other Canadian soldiers in France, is not as uncommon as it may seem.

The risk of unexploded ordinances in the soil requires that areas be swept before any construction, leading to discoveries of human remains every year in countries like France and Belgium.

“The majority are British. Sometimes there’s some German individuals in there, but it’s upward of 50 skeletons per year that are discovered,” said Sarah Lockyer, a casualty identification co-ordinator with the Department of National Defence.

A capbadge featuring a beaver Canadian maple leads a crowns and the phrase '10th Canadians' and a small round disk with some legible numbers and letters on it.
A cap badge, left, and a damaged identification disc found alongside the remains of private Atherton during a munitions clearing process near Rue Léon Droux in Vendin-le-Vieil, France. (Department of National Defence)

The three Canadian soldiers who were recently laid to rest were all found near the location of the Battle of Hill 70. Corporal Percy Howarth was found in 2011, and Atherton and sergeant Richard Musgrave were found in 2017.

In Atherton’s case, an insignia of the 10th Battalion and a damaged identification disc contained clues about who he was.

But finding the remains of soldiers is only the first step in a long process of identification, says Lockyer.

The location of the findings must be connected to the historic battles in that area, a forensic anthropological analysis tests for DNA and then genealogy research is also conducted.

The Homestretch9:39WWI soldiers identified and returned home

Some Canadian families were finally able to lay their ancestors to rest last week in France. The remains of three soldiers from the First World War were found in France over the last decade – including one solider who died fighting with the Calgary Highlanders. Sarah Lockyer is a casualty identification coordinator with the Canadian Armed Forces, who worked to identify the remains.

Lockyer says it’s work she loves being able to do for the record of history and to bring closure to families.

“For me, as a forensic anthropologist, it’s the culmination of everything. Like they have their name back, they have their face back —and that is priceless.”

Portions of a collar with a large tarnished 'C' over a '10'.
The remains of a Canadian C10 collar badge found with the remains of private Harry Artherton. (Department of National Defence)

Who was Harry Atherton

Atherton was born in Leigh, England, in 1892 to James Henry Atherton and Sarah Atherton.

In 1913, Atherton moved alone to Canada, settling in McBride, B.C. He was a carpenter by trade before enlisting in Edmonton in 1916.

He was a member of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion, which after the war was renamed the Calgary Highlanders.

Arriving in Liverpool, England, via New Brunswick in 1917, Atherton fought in many battles. He was injured and recovered in England before returning to the front.

He died in what is known as the Battle of Hill 70, the successful capture of a significant high area near the city of Lens, France, held by German forces.

Atherton was reported as killed in action on Aug. 15, 1917. He was 24 years old.

His name is engraved on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, listed among the names of soldiers who have no known grave. Although now, for private Harry Atherton, that is no longer the case.

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