Unknown soldier has ties to Ponoka

  • Mar. 23, 2011 11:00 a.m.

By ANDREA HILL / Red Deer Advocate

A First World War soldier listed as missing for 94 years has been identified in a groundbreaking investigation.

The news comes as a thrill to members of a Ponoka family who have been involved with the identification process since 2007.

“Ninety-four years of this person not having an identity is just something else,” said Donna McLaren, whose late husband Art McLaren was a distant cousin of the soldier. “Words just can’t describe it,” she said.

The soldier, Pte. Thomas Lawless, was publicly identified on Feb. 24. His remains were discovered in 2003 in Avion, France, alongside a handful of buttons inscribed with windmills and “Canada 49.” These labelled him as part of the Edmonton-based 49th Battalion.

His remains were found beside those of another soldier. Both men are believed to have died in the clashes following Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge in 1917. The other soldier was identified in 2007 as Pte. Herbert Peterson of Berry Creek, Alta. Lawless’s identification would take a further four years.

In 2007, Al and Art and his brother Al were contacted by a genealogist charged with determining the unknown soldier’s identity. The genealogist was looking for DNA samples and information about the family’s history.

The brothers sent back cheek swabs, and Donna dedicated herself to searching through previously untouched boxes of old letters and photos. Donna’s mother-in-law, a family history buff, had held onto the documents for years.

Donna eventually came across an old black and white photo depicting a wiry young man with his arm around a smiling woman. A handwritten note on the back identifies the man as Lawless.

The photo, previously destined to sit unseen in its box, has appeared in newspapers across the country.

But the photo might have been shown prematurely. Researchers at the Department of National Defence question whether it actually shows the recently identified soldier.

They believe the photo may have been taken several years after Lawless’s death.

Regardless of whether the photo shows Thomas Lawless, the McLaren family had discovered a tie to the First World War soldier. It would take much longer for researchers to confirm the remains belonged to Lawless. Based on military records, researchers knew Avion 1, as the unidentified soldier was dubbed, could be one of 16 men who disappeared from the 49th Battalion after Vimy Ridge. Forensic anthropologists narrowed this number down to five by determining the man’s approximate age and height.

Genealogists then contacted relatives of the five soldiers.

Art and Al McLaren and others contacted to aid in the investigation provided DNA that could have been passed down through the soldier’s family along the paternal line from fathers to children. But this DNA does not preserve well and Avion 1 was not able to provide an appropriate sample.

So the Department of National Defence tried something it had never done before: stable isotope technology.

“It’s a novel approach that’s not been employed for this purpose ever,” said Carney

Matheson, a researcher from Lakehead University who was involved in the initial stages of identification. He said the technology is used for archaeological research and this is the first time it’s been used to identify persons who have died within the last 100 years.

The technique is not as precise as DNA testing but works well as an elimination tool, said Laurell Clegg, casualty identifier with the Department of National Defence.

It works by creating a geo-profile of an individual that gives information about where he lived. This is then compared against records that detail where possible candidates grew up.

Lawless was born in Dublin and moved to Alberta when he was 20. Both Dublin and Alberta have distinct oxygen ratios in the water and people who live there show these ratios in their teeth. The other possible candidate grew up in Cape Breton, N.S., and would have had a very different isotope reading. Analysis of Avion 1’s isotopes left little doubt as to who he was.

Once Lawless was identified, Clegg was the one to call Donna and members of the Lawless family in Ireland.

The news was received well by Donna, who had spent countless hours learning about Lawless. She said Art, who died in 2008, would have been similarly excited by the news.

Lawless was to be buried at La Chaudiere Military Cemetery in Vimy, France, March 15. Donna is unable to make the trip on such short notice but some of Lawless’s relatives in Ireland will be in attendance.