100 Years Ago

A century ago, a man was killed in a battle that almost no-one remembers. In France, during World War I, Private Reginald Johnston died in the Battle of Hill 70. The battle began on August 15th, 1917, and Reginald died that day or the next. He wasn’t alone. By the time the battle ended on August 25th, some nine thousand Canadian troops were killed or wounded, and German casualties amounted to some twenty-five thousand.

Reginald was my great uncle by marriage. He was 22, had not married, and had no children. However, his brothers did have children, and one nephew and one niece survive. The niece is my mother-in-law, Ethel. So Ethel is off to France this week to lay her uncle to rest, and my wife Caroline is travelling with her. Caroline is the family’s genealogy buff, and one of the more experienced at international travel.

The remains of some soldiers were uncovered in 2011, when foundations were being dug for a new hospital and a new prison. It took time, but Private Johnston’s identity was confirmed by a tribunal: a military historian, a forensic specialist and a DNA expert agreed that it’s him. His Manitoba Métis ancestry made it easier to get a clear match through mitochondrial DNA. He will be laid to rest this week, and a new memorial to the battle will be unveiled.

For more background on Private Johnston, see this CBC article. For an overview of the Battle of Hill 70 and its significance, try this BBC piece.

On a personal level, Ethel and Caroline’s trip is proceeding more or less according to plan. More, in the sense that they got to Toronto, then Paris, and then Arras okay. Less, in the sense that Caroline’s cousin Carol was supposed to be escorting Uncle Dale, but as dates and travel arrangements changed, no one noticed that her passport was going to expire 83 days after she came home, rather than 90. Until she went through security at the Winnipeg airport, and was denied boarding. Ethel, Dale and Caroline set off for Toronto while Carol paid a frantic visit to the Winnipeg passport office. Miraculously, she was back at the airport within hours, and the same agent who had turned her away before was still on duty. He greeted her with a hug and rushed her through. She got on a later flight and arrived in Toronto with just forty minutes to travel the length of Pearson International, but was able to board the plane to France with everyone else.

Last I heard, the whole group was going for lunch, then taking a nap to try and cope with jet lag. Caroline is keen to try some French food and wine, but the schedule is quite busy after today. There’s a visit to Vimy Ridge with a ceremony for an unknown soldier, a talk with a historian, a meeting with some military brass and a reception, then a tour of the battlefield at Hill 70, the interment of Reginald Johnston, and probably some interviews with a CBC crew. Then the return trip.

I have it easy. I just have to look after two cats and a dog for a few days.

 

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