The Lost: Canadian Soldiers Missing in the First World War

There were few official telegram messages worse than “Killed in Action” during the First World War; however, one of those had to be “Missing in Action”. Roughly 5 000 soldiers of Canada’s total fatal casualties are listed as “presumed to have died”; many more were initially listed as KIA and even possibly buried, but their graves lost.

Image: Press Clipping – “The McGill Honour Roll, 1914-18”. McGill University, Montréal, QC, 1926. Courtesy Canadian Virtual War Memorial.. Pte. J.M. McCleod went missing during the battle of Sanctuary Wood, his body was never found.

After a soldier was designated as Missing in Action it could be months, or even years before his status was confirmed. Being listed as missing meant anything from being killed and not yet located, to being taken prisoner and not yet registered, and families often held out hope that their loved one would turn up on a Red Cross list as a prisoner, or in a hospital. Though rare, this did sometimes happen, particularly if soldiers were taken to hospital with no identification and no ability to confirm who they were.

More typically, however, those listed missing in battle had usually been killed and their death unreported, or their body never found. A typical experience for families of the missing is that of the Elliott family, whose son Robert was listed as missing on after the Battle of Thiepval Ridge in September 1916. Elliott was first reported missing on 29 September 1916.  In the chaos of battle often soldiers would get lost and end up with other units, or be wounded and evacuated to hospital without notification to their units until several days afterward; it was common to wait several days before listing someone as officially “missing”.

Elliott was still missing on 11 November 1916, two months after the battle, and he was confirmed as presumed dead “for official purposes” on 18 April 1917, after an eight month wait. During this time, his family would have waited for news, and hoped that he was still alive, but that would have gotten dimmer with time. Elliott’s name appears on the Vimy Memorial, along with the 11 000 other Canadians in France with no known grave.

The battle zone in northern France was also under almost constant shelling, and one of the common post war occurrences was for those killed in action and buried in a marked grave to now be missing. Thousands of graves were lost as the areas behind the lines were shelled, or as the lines themselves changed hands, and even with the most accurate record keeping many battlefield graves are now lost as well.

Historian Norm Christie’s project, Recover Our Vimy Heros, deals with just such an occurrence.  44 soldiers of the 16th Battalion killed at Vimy were buried in a mass grave shortly after the battle, whose coordinate was subsequently lost. None of these men was ever buried in an official CWGC graveyard and they remain missing 100 years later. As we can see from the 11 000 soldiers commemorated at Vimy, this was an all too common occurrence.

Canada’s final numbers of missing soldiers is certainly high, but in comparison to other countries, like France it is only a drop in the bucket. The Battle for Verdun alone left unidentifiable remains of some 130 000 French and German soldiers, and today bodies are still found in northern France that have been missing for over a century. Though it is hard to get a totally accurate number, it is thought that the number of  soldiers still missing in France and Flanders is well over 1 million.

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