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Return Of The Fallen

by Pat Sullivan

From top: A woman blows a kiss on the coffin of Pte. Richard Green during his funeral in Nova Scotia in April 2002; Sgt. Derek Rogers’ remains were returned home for burial at the National Military Cemetery in Ottawa. He died in 2002 while vacationing in the United States.

“You’re OK, jumper. Have a good one.”

–Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Stogran, commander, 3 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group, to each of the four caskets containing the bodies of his troopers prior to their transfer back to Canada in April 2002.

When the bodies of four Canadians killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan began their long journey back to Canada last year, soldiers accompanying the coffins probably weren’t aware of the trip’s significance.

Save for the body of a World War I soldier returned for the commemoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa two years earlier, the flight from Kandahar would mark the first time that Canadians killed while participating in an active combat operation were returned home for burial or cremation instead of being buried at the nearest military cemetery.

Thanks to a change in procedure introduced without fanfare in 1970, the military’s policy of “burying where they fell” was replaced by a new guiding principle: That the bodies of all Canadian military personnel who die abroad will be returned to Canada.

The change has left some veterans upset. “What bothers me most is that some bodies are being brought home while others were not,” says Ed Smith of Stittsville, Ont., who chairs a committee that Ottawa-area MP David Pratt created to advise him on veterans’ issues.

Smith is not alone. “This was a political manoeuvre,” says War Amputations Chief Executive Officer Cliff Chadderton, who describes himself as a “traditionalist who has an inborn objection to changing long-standing policies.”

Meanwhile, in a report prepared for Pratt, Smith’s committee concluded that the army should have followed wartime tradition and buried the soldiers killed near Kandahar in the closest military cemetery. The four members of 3 Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry–Sergeant Marc Léger, 29, of Lancaster, Ont., Corporal Ainsworth Dyer, 24, of Montreal, Private Richard Green, 21, of Mill Cove, N.S., and Pte. Nathan Smith, 27, of Porter’s Lake, N.S.–died on the night of April 17/18 last year after an American F-16 dropped a 500-pound bomb. The pilot, who faces charges of involuntary manslaughter and assault, thought muzzle flashes from a live-fire exercise involving the battalion’s parachute company were directed at his two-plane flight. The other pilot was also charged.

Later that same month separate military funerals were held across Canada. The public response was unprecedented, with an estimated 17,000 people attending a memorial service in Edmonton.

But Ed Smith is worried that a precedent has been set. In the report prepared for Pratt, he wrote: “Returning even small numbers will create inequities when deciding who should, or should not, be returned to their native land for a funeral.”

In an interview, Smith cited the remains of six Canadian airmen who were buried in Myanmar (formerly Burma) in 1997, 52 years after their Dakota crashed. “The relatives wanted their remains returned to Canada. Regrettably, the government stood by what we understood as policy and insisted they should be ‘buried where they fell.'”

How, asks Smith, is the situation in Afghanistan different?

Pratt, who chairs the House of Commons Committee on National Defence and Veterans Affairs, “understands very well” the concerns of veterans like Smith, but he says the burial policy has to mirror changes that have occurred since WW II. “The original policy (of burial in place) goes back to the First World War and the British government’s concern that wealthy families were trying to have the bodies of their sons brought home,” he says. “The concern was that this would have led to a two-tier system, with poor soldiers buried overseas and the rich ones brought home. So the British decreed that everyone, general and private alike, would be buried side by side, with the same type of headstone. And this is what was done.”

However, Pratt says the modern tendency for having low-intensity, low-casualty conflicts–four Canadians were killed during the PPCLI’s six months in Afghanistan, while more than 3,500 died during three days of fighting at Vimy Ridge in 1917–means the country now has the option of bringing bodies home. And he says this is the right thing to do.

“You have to ask yourself whether we would have been able to look after graves over there in perpetuity,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

Major Michael McNorgan of the Canadian Forces Directorate of History and Heritage says Canada’s policy on burying its war dead began evolving with the deaths of the first Canadians during the Boer War from 1899 to 1902. In South Africa, for instance, Canadians were literally buried where they fell for hygienic reasons. The result is “lone, long-forgotten Canadian graves.” According to McNorgan, the lack of transportation and embalming facilities meant that the only places Canadian bodies were buried in significant numbers in South Africa was around field hospitals.

During WW I, transportation improved and most bodies were concentrated in hundreds of small military cemeteries created to meet the unending demand imposed by advances and retreats along the Western Front. WW II was marked by a switch to huge cemeteries, where thousands of soldiers were buried together. McNorgan points to Holland as an example–most Canadians who died there were buried in three large cemeteries.

By the time of the Korean War, the relatively concentrated battle zone and further improvements in transportation meant that the bodies of Canadian dead would all be buried in the same place, the war cemetery at Pusan.

McNorgan says the policy of burying Canadians where they died remained in place until 1970. For instance, more than 1,300 Canadians who died while on North Atlantic Treaty Organization duty in Europe during the Cold War were buried at the nearest military cemetery where space was available. Since 1970 all bodies have been returned to Canada, save for personnel who were killed in a world war but whose remains were not discovered until after 1970. The move means that the number of foreign countries in which Canadian military personnel are buried is likely to remain frozen forever at 74.

McNorgan says he understands veterans’ feelings on the issue, but says the right decision was made following the deaths in Afghanistan. “If we had buried them at Kandahar, who would look after the graves? There’s no Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery there. We’d end up with the same situation we now have in South Africa, where the Canadian graves have been forgotten.”

Peter Francis, a spokesperson for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in England, says an order forbidding the repatriation of remains was first issued by the British army’s adjutant general in April 1915, partly on grounds of hygiene “but also on account of the difficulties of treating impartially the claims advanced by persons of different social standing.” The driving force behind the order was Fabian Ware, who founded the commission in 1917.

Even in WW I, says Francis, the “no repatriation” rule was so contentious that it nearly led to the commission’s demise in 1920. Although the army’s order lapsed when the war ended, the commission’s member countries, including Canada, refused to allow the removal of bodies from military cemeteries for shipment home. “A higher ideal than that of private burial at home is embodied in these war cemeteries in foreign lands, where those who fought together, officers and men, lie together in their last resting place, facing the line they gave their lives to maintain.”

Francis says this refusal eventually led to a debate in the British Parliament “which threatened the very existence of the commission. Fortunately, the motion (to allow repatriation of bodies) was defeated.”

Today, says Francis, the commission is responsible for war graves in 23,000 burial locations in 148 countries ranging from Albania, where there are 46 dead, to Zimbabwe, 550 dead. More than 110,000 Canadian war dead have been buried or commemorated on a memorial. The number is broken down into 82,607 buried and 27,600 commemorated on a memorial.

Bob Butt, The Royal Canadian Legion’s director of communications, says the repatriation issue has always been determined by arithmetic and technology. “In the wars we’ve fought, including Korea, there was no way we could have brought them home. And a lot of our people who died in Europe in peacetime were buried there because of the cost of bringing them back.

“Today, times are different and the capabilities are different. We can now fly someone home from anywhere in the world within 24 hours–in Korea you might have been looking at five days if you were lucky. So that’s the difference–today we can bring people back in limited numbers, and personally I think it is the right thing to do.”

In fact, this type of repatriation became one of the defining symbols of the Vietnam war, when more than 50,000 American bodies were returned to their families. A more recent example is provided by the Falklands War of 1982, in which 255 British personnel were killed. When the war ended, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher offered family members the choice of having the bodies returned or buried in the Falklands. Repatriation proved the overwhelming choice­only 23 bodies of Falkland casualties are buried at the Blue Beach Military Cemetery in San Carlos. Although several more have no known grave because they were lost at sea, the vast majority were sent back to the United Kingdom.

In 2003, there is little doubt that a generation gap exists over the repatriation issue.

“Our comrades, their dependants and families must be assured that the Afghanistan situation in no way diminishes the supreme sacrifice made by loved ones who now lie in foreign graves,” Ed Smith wrote in his committee’s report to Pratt. “To our knowledge, never before have we returned our overseas war dead to Canada.”

He also thinks that the “media frenzy” surrounding the deaths detracted from the funeral ceremonies. “The whole incident became a media circus,” he complains. “I suppose that I shouldn’t be too critical because a postwar mentality has taken over, but I worry about a precedent being set. I just think we should be careful.

“I know that I did a tour in a Lanc, and the feeling then was that you always wanted to be buried with your buddies.”

Chadderton remembers surprisingly few WW II burials, probably because most were simple, rushed ceremonies. One of the few he recalls clearly involved Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Thompson of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, who was killed in action Feb. 26, 1945, at age 24.

He says Thompson’s death led to a formal burial parade, but most soldiers weren’t fans of that type of pomp and ceremony. “My view is that the simple service conducted with two or three of his fellow servicemen is a greater tribute to those who have lost their lives and are buried where they fell.”

But even though Chadderton remains a “traditionalist,” he acknowledges that the policy change “may well have been almost a necessity with a new generation. “My only question, I guess, is what do we do if we get into the mother of all wars…? Are we going to change the policy again?”

Scott Taylor, who edits the military magazine Esprit de Corps and saw peacetime service in the PPCLI, does not hesitate when asked about the repatriation issue. “DND did the right thing,” he says. “The veterans are comparing Afghanistan to their war, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but today we can have bodies home in a matter of hours and this gives families here some closure. They also have to remember that the scale and scope of conflict is entirely different today, and that we have a more family-friendly military than we did in WW II. And to be honest, I don’t believe that there was a deliberate policy of burying people overseas before–they simply had no other choice. Today we do.”

As for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, its work continues. “Approximately 25 sets of remains are still discovered each year on the former battlefields of Western Europe,” says Francis. “Each case is investigated by our member governments and if an identification is possible, every effort is made to trace the next of kin. Identified or not, each serviceman is afforded the proper military burial his sacrifice warrants at the nearest cemetery in which we have space.”

The latest burial took place in November, when Warrant Officer Robert Moulton of Brockville, Ont., Flight Sergeant Joseph Thibaudeau of St-Eustache, Que., and Flt. Sgt. Joseph White of Thorold, Ont., were buried in Holland. The three Canadians, part of the crew of a Wellington bomber, died May 5, 1943, when their plane crashed in a Dutch bog. The remains, which were recovered in September, were buried with full military honours last November.

But the location of the burial site didn’t seem to matter. “There’s something to be said for closure,” 77-year-old Samuel White said after burying his brother. “It’s been a sad trip, but I feel better now that he’s buried. It’s been a long time.”


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