Ian Atherton didn’t know much about his mother’s side of the family growing up, let alone that his uncle had been killed in the First World War.
But it was his DNA that allowed Canadian authorities to finally confirm that remains found in France in 2017 were those of Pte. George Newburn.
“Initially, I didn’t think it was a big deal,” said Atherton at his home in Victoria.
“But as it progressed and it got to the point of them actually confirming that it was George, it hit me quite strongly.”
A member of the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion (British Columbia), Newburn was just 18-years-old when he died during the second assault on Hill 70 near Lens in August of 1917.
His remains were never found so his name appears on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial to the Missing.
Then in July 2017, a construction project in Vendin-le-Vieil uncovered the remains of five soldiers.
“Alongside the remains were a number of artifacts, including shoes, Lee Enfield rifles, and a damaged 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion (British Columbia) collar badge.”
In the summer of 2018, Atherton says he was asked to provide a DNA sample to see if he could help confirm that one of those found was indeed Pte. Newburn, but the initial results were not encouraging.
“They got back in August and said there was no connection, sorry about that, have a nice life,” said Atherton
“A month later they came back and said we re-analyzed the data and there was a 1 in 3300 chance that there wasn’t a linkage, which was amazing.”
In February 2019, the Casualty Identification Review Board was finally able to confirm the remains of Pte. Newburn had been found.
Now, he will be given a proper burial and gravestone at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France.
Atherton, his wife Maureen and one of their two daughters will be there for the service on June 12th.
He says his late mother and her two sisters had been sent to an orphanage before Pte. Newburn had enlisted at age 16.
She never spoke about the brother, more than a decade her senior, who’d gone off to war and never came back.
“I think my mother would be immensely happy if she was aware of what’s happening,” he said.
“Because her childhood was very traumatic and that’s why we didn’t hear the history of her life.”
The family will be joined at the service by representatives from the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Government.