Avion, France (1917 / 2003)

The Honourable Laurie Hawn, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of National Defence, made the announcement of Private Lawless’ identification. The announcement was made on 24 February from the Regimental Museum of the Loyal Edmonton Regiment – the military descendent of Private Lawless’ battalion, the 49th.

Private Lawless will be interred with his fellow unit members, and next to Private Peterson, at La Chaudière Military Cemetery (Commonwealth War Graves Commission), Vimy, France, on 15 March 2011 with his niece and her family in attendance.

Soldiers of the 49th Battalion in the field
Soldiers of the 49th in the field
(credit to Private A.R. MacDonald).
Used with permission of Mr. Terry MacDonald.

49th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force

In October 2003, skeletal remains of two soldiers from the First World War were discovered by workmen during construction in Avion, Pas-de-Calais, France. Due to their location and the battalion-specific uniform buttons and crests found with the remains, they were believed to be members of the 49th Battalion Canadian Expeditionary Force. During a night raid on the German front on the 8-9 June 1917, 16 soldiers of the 49th were reported missing and presumed dead. The skeletal remains were likely to belong to two of the missing sixteen members of the battalion.

Facial reconstruction
Facial reconstruction
(photo credit Dr. Andrew Nelson)

Over a period of six years, the Directorate of History and Heritage, Casualty Investigation, sought the identity of the soldiers. The first soldier was identified in February 2007 as Private Herbert Peterson of Berry Creek, Alberta. He was interred in La Chaudière Military Cemetery on 7April 2007 in a military ceremony.

Through continued testing using heritable material through the maternal line (mitochondrial DNA), osteology, facial reconstruction, military history and finally, stable isotopes – the remains of the second unknown soldier, Avion 1, have finally been identified.

Method Who Where Result

Historical Research

Dr. Ken Reynolds

Directorate of History and Heritage, DND

Verification of the actions and location of the 49th Bn and gaining a list of the 16 missing and their physical descriptions.

Anthropological Research

Dr. Vera Tiesler
Dr. Andrew Nelson

Lakehead University & University of Western Ontario

Differentiation of the two sets of remains. Production of physical profiles of the two soldiers.

Facial Reconstruction

Dr. Andrew Nelson

University of Western Ontario

Conducted initial anthropological analysis and scanning of skull and digital reconstruction

Steve Kruithof

NRC Virtual Environment Tech Centre

Dr. Xavier Demondion

Lille Hospital

Shawn Kelly

Drafting Clinic

Christian Corbet

Portrait artist

Constructed 3 dimensional portrait

Mitochondrial DNA testing

Dr. Amarjit Chahal

Warnex Pro DNA

Isolation of mtDNA (heritable material passed through the maternal line) in the remains and comparison with samples given by maternal descendents of the candidate soldiers. Exclusion of three of the five potential candidates.

Genealogical Research

Ms. Janet Roy

MacKinnon and Bowes Ltd.

Location of the maternal descendents of candidate soldiers.

Isotope Research

Dr. Christine White and Dr. Fred Longstaffe

University of Western Ontario

Determination of the place of origin and upbringing for the unidentified Avion 1. Final evidence required for identification.

Casualty Identification Coordination

Ms. Laurel Clegg

Directorate of History and Heritage – Department of National Defence

Coordination of all government and non-government partners and researchers to produce an identification and interment.

Artefacts (photo credit
Sgt Jill Cooper, April 2007).

Through historical research, Dr. Ken Reynolds reduced the number of candidates for identification for Avion 1 from 16 to 5. This was based on the physical profiles created by Dr. Tiesler in her analyses of the remains using physical anthropology. From the dentition, Warnex Pro DNA was able to extract mitochondrial DNA and compare it with the profiles donated by maternal descendents of three of the five candidates – Privates Cosman and Sleeman and Lt. Downton. Each was excluded. The two remaining candidates, Private MacDonald and Private Lawless, did not have any maternal descendents to which the scientists at Warnex could compare mtDNA. Although MacDonald and Lawless had paternal descendents – to which any extracted YSTR (heritable material from the paternal line) could be compared, YSTR genetic maternal could not be extracted from the remains. Ms. Janet Roy was responsible for tracing each of the descendents.

Historical data
Historical data
(from Library and Archives Canada,
CF Burial Records for Thomas Lawless).

"Killed in Action"

183425 Private Lawless Thomas
49th Battalion 9-6-17 649-L-7775 Roman Catholic

He took part in a raid on the enemy's trenches
in front of Avion on the night of June 9th 1917.
The Company had reached the final objective
when Private lawless who was in a shell hole,
was killed by the concussion of an exploding shell.
His comrades were badly shaken up by the same
explosion, and his death occurred just at the
moment the signal to return was given,
consequently his body was not recovered for burial.

In order to differentiate the final two candidates, Dr. White provided a ‘geo-habitation’ profile of the unknown soldier based on the oxygen isotope ratios (taken in by drinking water) in his dentition and jaw bone. From this, she and her colleague, Dr. Longstaffe, were able to show that the unknown had spent his early life in Dublin, followed by a move to Alberta. This pattern is consistent with the habitation pattern of Private Lawless and inconsistent with the habitation pattern of Private MacDonald (he lived most of his life in Cape Breton and then moved to Edmonton).

As of 10 January 2011, the remaining unknown soldier found in Avion, France was identified as Private Thomas Lawless of Calgary, Alberta. Born the 11th of April, 1889 in Santry, Dublin, Ireland – Lawless was the son of James and Roseanna Lawless of Santry Court, Dublin, Ireland. He had two brothers; Matthew and James. Matthew also served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.