Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday May 5, 2000
Known only to God, a soldier comes home
Who was he? Was he a child of 16, big for his age who had “borrowed” someone else’s birth certificate? Was he a battle-hardened veteran of 25, scarred in mind if not in body? Was he a farm boy? A bank clerk? Was he white or native? Was he an only child or a beloved brother? Was he married? Did he leave children to mourn him? Did he die in an obliterating shellburst? Did he lie bleeding and alone in a muddy crater in No Man’s Land as his life ebbed away?
The Unknown Soldier: Anyone and everyone
We know but this: Once upon a time, someone loved this Canadian. And he died while serving his country.
He is our Unknown Soldier and while it is true he could be any of these things, it is more important to realize that he is all of them. Canada’s soldat inconnu will be laid to his final rest tomorrow beneath the triumphal arch of the National War Memorial in Ottawa. As he has come home, so have all his comrades; as he is recognized, so are they all. He is honoured not for the mystery of who he is, but for the infinite possibility of who he was.
The concept of the Unknown Soldier is rapidly becoming obsolete, at least in this part of the world. Advances in DNA matching means that even the most brutally damaged remains can be identified today. In fact, Canada had to promise the Commonwealth War Graves Commission it would not try to identify these Canadian remains; an American Unknown Soldier was recently identified through testing.
Our Unknown Soldier died somewhere near Vimy Ridge, the crest of land where Canadian soldiers first fought as a national force on Easter Monday 1917. He is one of more than 116,000 Canadians who died in battle in the past century’s wars; one of almost 28,000 of them whose remains were never found or identified. He is one of them; he is all of them.
In the past few years, there has been a resurgence of interest in, and honouring of, the sacrifices of the Canadian men and women who served in the our armed forces. Remembrance Day was marked in this country last November in a more solemn and meaningful way than this country has seen in decades.
There is a remarkable synchronicity in the coming home this week of our Unknown Soldier and the full-honours burial in France a day earlier of David John Carlson, a soldier from Mannville, Alta., who died in the Battle of the Somme. Listed for 80 years as missing in action, his remains recently surfaced in a French farmer’s field. There is no one left alive who knew Private Carlson. Two grand-nieces attended his funeral but could only say they thought he was one of two men in a faded photo. They don’t know which one.
But just as a family tried to remember David Carlson, so Canada can try to remember all those who sacrificed everything — their hopes, their dreams, their futures — for their country.
And tomorrow, as the bones of a young man are interred in a granite sarcophagus in Ottawa, his maple coffin atop soil from each of the provinces and territories and from France where he gave his life, we can honour all those who are known only to God. (Hamilton Spectator Editorial, D6, 5/27/2000)