Private Alexander Johnston, killed in battle in 1918 at the age of 33, for decades was counted among the more than 19,500 Canadian First World War soldiers with no known grave. But in October he was finally given a funeral with full military honours and buried in France under a headstone inscribed with his name.
Johnston, born in Scotland in 1885, moved to Canada in his twenties and joined up in January 1918. He was a member of the 78th (Winnipeg Grenadiers) Battalion.
The battalion was to take the villages of Sailly and Raillencourt following the fight to capture the Douai-Cambrai Road. Johnston was killed Sept. 29, 1918, as the battalion came under heavy machine-gun fire after crossing the road. The area of Raillencourt-Sailly was taken by the 4th Canadian Division in September and October. Although the 78th Bn. reported 11 soldiers lost, only Johnston and Pte. Donald Alexander Wallis were unaccounted for in the Sailly-lez-Cambrai region.
Remains were recovered, along with specific uniform buttons and badges, in July 2008 in an industrial zone near Raillencourt-Saint-Olle. A genetic sample was taken and compared with that of maternal descendants of the two missing soldiers. Johnston was identified in March 2011.
Johnston’s funeral on Oct. 25 was attended by relatives from Scotland and Canada, members of the Canadian Forces, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and other dignitaries from Canada and France. His great-grand-niece, Corporal Ann Gregory, a trumpeter with the Governor General’s Foot Guards, played The Last Post. He was buried in the Cantimpré Canadian Cemetery in France, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and near those of other members of his regiment killed the same day.
With the exception of the Unknown Soldier, entombed in 2000 at the foot of the National War Memorial in Ottawa, Canada does not repatriate service personnel who died overseas prior to July 1970. At the end of the First World War it was felt all war dead should be treated equally, and since not all could be brought home, none should be, says Brad Hall of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. There was also a strong belief in interring recovered remains near those with whom they fought.
Canada’s Korean War casualties, servicemen and women who died prior to 1970 in former North Atlantic Treaty Organization base locations in France and Germany and from United Nations overseas missions also fall under Canada’s policy of non-repatriation, explained Laurel Clegg of casualty identification at the Directorate of History and Heritage at the Department of National Defence (Finding Names For Long-Lost Canadian Soldiers (January/February 2009, available online at legionmagazine.com/en/index.php/2009/01/finding-names-for-long-lost-canadian-soldiers/).