Canadian history: DNA used to identify WWI soldier

The family of a man who fought and died in the First World War say they thought they were being scammed at first when they got the call asking for a DNA sample to identify their distant relative.

Cpl. Percy Howarth was just 23 when he was reported missing as his battalion, the 7th Canadian Infantry British Columbia, stormed Hill 70.

A fierce and deadly 10 days, the 1917 Battle of Hill 70 in France is an important Canadian victory from the First World War. More than 10,000 Canadians died, were wounded or went missing in that fight, and the young corporal was presumed to be among the dead.

It would take more than a century for his family to know what really happened.

Howarth’s remains were found in 2011, but it took experts more than a decade to identify the soldier. His name was announced earlier this week by the Department of National Defence.

“The fact that they managed to identify him with DNA found basically in a mass grave is truly wondrous,” Carolyn Cooling said in an interview with CTV News. Cooling is Howarth’s great-great niece.

It was so wondrous to her and her family that at first, they didn’t believe the news or that the request for a DNA sample was legitimate.

“We thought it was a scam,” she said. “We didn’t expect a call like that. When we realized what it was, it was really humbling to know how much effort they took to find the family.”

Cooling said the family knew some of its history; part of her grandfather’s family had moved to Canada and his uncles had died in battle. Beyond that, not much was known about Howarth until recently.

Howarth’s remains were among those of five Canadian soldiers found while clearing munitions in France. All died on Aug. 15 or 16, 1917, according to those who worked to identify the men.

The others were identified, but Howarth remained a mystery for years.

Members of the Canadian Armed Forces’ Casualty Identification Program were able to learn who Howarth was through DNA testing.

Co-ordinator Sarah Lockyer told CTV News of the effort, “They died for Canada, so I think it’s the least we can do to do everything that we possibly can to return their identity to them.”

Howarth was found with a whistle, a Canadian badge and a pocket watch that, with a little effort, still works today.

But with the bodies of 1,300 Canadians still missing from the battlefield near Loos, France, those clues weren’t enough.

Lockyer, a forensic anthropologist, had to search centuries-old archives to find a family member with matching DNA.

The team used estimates of the soldier’s age and height to shorten the list but were limited to mitochondrial DNA retrieved from the bones.

This DNA is passed from mother to child, so they needed to find someone from Howarth’s maternal line to confirm a match.

Lockyer said typically they’d first look to siblings, but all four of Howarth’s sisters died childless, so there was no DNA passed on to descendants that way.

She said Howarth’s mother was an only child, so the team had to go back another generation to Howarth’s grandmother’s family, using records from the early 18th century, and tracing the lineage from there.

“It can get very complicated because things are not digitized or easily accessible online,” Lockyer said.

“It can become quite difficult to trace from the grandmother to more than 200 years later, to somebody who’s alive today who is not only willing to give a DNA sample – because we recognize that it’s bizarre that the Government of Canada is asking for your DNA, it’s a bizarre phone call – but also there can be some reluctance, especially if they don’t know who we’re talking about.”

That was what happened in this case. They found a donor willing to give a sample, but that person did not know the soldier.

“It’s definitely the longest identification case that we’ve had, and it’s because of the complications with the genealogy – to find that right DNA donor. It was complicated,” Lockyer said.

Now that Howarth’s identity is restored, he’ll be buried in a British cemetery in France, where the remains of the other four Canadian soldiers lie.

Since the military’s casualty identification program began in 2007, more than 30 unknown soldiers have been named, but thousands more remain.

With files from The Canadian Press

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