What is Casualty Identification
Why27,000 Canadian war dead that are missing with no known grave from the First World War, Second World War and Korea. When the remains of these missing are discovered we use historical research and modern scientific methods to identify them so they may be buried with a name, by their unit and in the presence of their family. In this way, the program fosters a strong sense of continuity and identity within the Canadian Armed Forces.
Investigations by the Casualty Identification Program begin with the discovery of human remains when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) assesses that recently discovered remains are those of Canadian war dead.
Commonwealth countries no longer actively search for the remains of their missing. Extensive efforts were undertaken in the immediate aftermath of both world wars to search for unrecovered remains on all the battlefields, but not all could be found in the torn-up countryside and cityscapes. Canada, like its Commonwealth partners, remains responsive to discoveries.
As a member of the CWGC, Canada adheres to its policies. The December 1918 Report of the Imperial War Graves Commission (the earlier title of the CWGC) makes it clear that the Commission’s stance was, from its inception, firmly against repatriation of war dead. The principle of equality of treatment was central to the Commission’s philosophy and repatriation would defy this important tenet. Repatriation of remains would also oppose the spirit in which the Commission accepted offers of land from France, Belgium, Italy and Greece, intended to preserve the war dead in perpetuity. Following the Second World War, the IWGC once again faced the question of repatriation of war dead. The Commission reaffirmed their previous policy citing the principle of equality of treatment and, once again, Allied nations had graciously offered land for war cemeteries. Order in Council P.C. 1970-6/1254, in July 1970 amended Canada’s policy of non-repatriation of war dead. This Order allowed from 1970 onward the repatriation of those killed while overseas if desired by the next-of-kin. Remains of Canada’s war dead preceding 1970, however, continue to observe the previous policy not to be exhumed and repatriated. For further reading, Para 2
The Research ProcessThe casualty identification process enlists the services of various professions including historians, anthropological, archaeological and laboratory scientists, forensic odontologists and genealogists.
Construction projects, road works, archaeological digs and farming activity, especially near known battlefields, cause the discovery of human remains of war. Understanding the archaeological and historical context helps piece together information concerning the final moments of the fallen. Determining if it was a hasty burial or one that happened behind the lines can help steer the subsequent historical research. Often, artifacts found with the remains serve as material evidence in our investigations. Military artifacts include personal identifiers such as identity discs and items with service numbers; insignia such as buttons or badges that serve to identify a Unit or Squadron and equipment that provide evidence as to the nationality of the remains and time period of death. Personal items such as rings or watches are sometimes found with the remains and may provide clues to the service member’s identity when analysed together with a biographical history.
From these circumstances, they can determine the unit or aircraft to which the deceased belonged. Historians determine possible candidates using lists of missing with no known grave, grave registration records and personnel records. They then examine personnel and medical records for each candidate and the unit war diaries. The information gathered shows the circumstances surrounding the death. Medical information such as age-at-death, height, dentition and sickness (pathology) is gathered and passed on to the forensic anthropologist. If historical research and material evidence do not link the discovered remains to a time, place or Unit, DHH will direct the CWGC to bury the remains as an unknown Canadian.
The historical research together with the anthropological analysis and forensic odontology can sometimes confirm the identity of the remains. However, the investigation at this point may have simply reduced the number of candidates based on height, age, dentition records and injuries. The investigation most often continues and must rely on DNA to confirm an identity. Before proceeding to DNA analysis, genealogical research seeks descendants that may carry the appropriate DNA.
Mr. David Carey receiving the Canadian flag and
medals belonging to his great-uncle Flight Sergeant
John Joseph Carey. Used with permission.
Genetic profilingWith a reduced list of candidates, genetic samples collected from the remains are compared with family-comparison samples found through genealogical research. Biological tests such as matching mitochondrial DNA profiles of the remains with those of the candidates' descendants are a highly reliable means of directly identifying a service member or of further eliminating other candidates. At times, historical research, anthropological analysis and genetic testing will narrow the field to two or three potential candidates. In such cases, there is one final technique that can be employed called Stable Isotope profiling.
Oxygen isotopes are taken into the body through drinking water and are incorporated into the enamel of teeth during the enamel’s development starting with the incisors, to the canines, to the premolars and finally to the molars, taking approximately 20 years. Since dental enamel does not remodel during one’s lifetime, analysis of teeth that develop at different ages can provide a general geographical profile of an individual’s first twenty years of life.
Bone also incorporates oxygen isotopes into its structure. But unlike dentition, bone remodels every 10-15 years, and as such, any readings are only accurate for the last 10-15 years. For these reasons, the use of oxygen isotopes to differentiate between two potential candidates is ideal. Historical research can determine where each candidate lived during their lives. This information is then compared against settlement patterns determined by the lab tests from the dentition (first 20 years of life) and the jaw bone (last 15 years of life).
Each casualty identification case supplies its own challenges and no doubt, new technologies and increased access to historical documents will enhance the precision and ability to identify Canada’s missing service members. The attempt to give a name to each discovered Canadian military fatality is an extremely important goal for the Canadian Armed Forces. After all, those men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice deserve nothing less. For further reading