What is Casualty Identification

Why we do it?

Orchard Dump Cemetery
A view of Orchard Dump
Cemetery, France

The Department of National Defence established the Casualty Identification Program in 2007 to respond to an increasing number of discovered human remains of the more than 27,000 Canadian war dead with no known grave from the First World War, the Second World War and the United Nations Operations in Korea (Korean Conflict).

During and in the immediate aftermath of both world wars, Canada’s Grave Registration Units and the Imperial War Graves Commission (now called the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) attempted to identify and provide Canadian soldiers with proper burials.

Although active searches for the remains of Commonwealth soldiers were suspended after 1921, Commonwealth countries continue to attempt to identify the remains of missing service members found in the present day. In Canada, this work is done by the Casualty Identification Program.

Investigations typically begin when the Commonwealth War Graves Commission determines that discovered remains are Canadian war dead. The Casualty Identification Program uses a number of historical and scientific research methods to identify the remains.

When the Casualty Identification Program’s investigation is successful, identified human remains are buried with a name, by their unit and in the presence of their family. Each case has its own challenges. New technologies and better access to historical documents continue to improve the Program’s ability to identify Canada’s missing service members.

Since 2007, the Casualty Identification Program has successfully identified 25 Canadians and 19 foreign nationals. Additionally, five sets of remains have been buried as unknown soldiers in cases where identification was not possible.

The Casualty Identification Program promotes a strong sense of continuity and identity within the Canadian Armed Forces. The attempt to give a name to each discovered Canadian military fatality is a very important goal for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Caix British Cemetery
Caix British Cemetery, France

Commonwealth War Graves Commission

As a founding member to the Imperial War Graves Commission, Canada adheres the policies of the present day Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

The final report of the Imperial War Grave Commission in 1918 signed by all members of the Commonwealth presented a common view opposed to repatriation of war dead. This policy affirmed the commitment to the equal treatment of all war dead. The report noted that these cemeteries “in foreign lands would be the symbol for future generations of the common purpose, the common devotion, the common sacrifice of all ranks.” Sir Robert Borden, Prime Minister of Canada 1911 to 1920, was a key supporter of the policy saying, “it is entirely appropriate that among the ranks of the dead there should be no distinction.”

Repatriation would also be against the spirit of land offers to preserve the war dead in perpetuity from France, Belgium, Italy, Greece and many others.

After the Second World War, nations where fighting took place once again offered land for war cemeteries.

Canada changed its policy against the repatriation of war dead in July 1970. Canadian Armed Forces personnel killed overseas after 1970 have been repatriated to Canada. Canada continues to respect the previous non-repatriation policy for the remains of service members killed on operations before 1970.

Identification process

A number of disciplines help the casualty identification process, including history, archaeology, anthropology, laboratory sciences, forensic odontology, and genealogy.

The Casualty Identification Program attempts to identify all discovered remains. Unfortunately, limitations can prevent a positive identification. If historical research and material evidence do not link the discovered remains to a time, place or specific military unit, the list of potential candidates can be in the hundreds or even thousands.

In this case, the Directorate of History and Heritage (DHH) will ask the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) to bury the remains as an unknown Canadian soldier. As human remains cannot be exhumed once buried in a CWGC cemetery, DHH collects all available information (including DNA profiles) in the hope that evidence uncovered in the future may positively identify an already buried soldier. In that case, a change of headstone would take place.

Click on the links below to read more information on the steps that can be included in an investigation.

Discovery of remains

Field on the outskirts of Arleux en Gohelle
Human remains are found by
archaeologists during the excavation
of a known battle site, France.

Human remains of war dead are discovered during construction projects, road works, archaeological digs, and farming activity, especially near known battlefields. Artefacts are often found with the remains and become material evidence in our investigations.

Military artefacts include personal military identifiers (identity discs and items with service numbers), insignia (buttons or badges that identify a unit or squadron), and military equipment that gives 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 give clues to the service member’s identity.

Historical research

Unknown Canadian soldier
The headstone of an unknown Canadian soldier
of the Great War at Tyne Cot Cemetery,

The location of the discovery and associated artefacts allows DHH historians to provide a historical background to the events leading to the soldier’s death.

From these events, they can determine the soldier’s unit or aircraft. Historians determine the number of possible candidates using lists of missing servicemen, grave registration records, personnel records, and unit war diaries. Medical information for each candidate is collected and passed on to the forensic anthropologist.

Anthropological analysis

Each set of skeletal remains is examined using anthropological methods. The anthropological analysis produces a biological profile of the individual: sex, age-at-death, ancestry, height, pathology (disease), and trauma (injury).

The biological profile is compared to the list of potential candidates created by the historian and will produce a smaller list of candidates based on age-at-death and height. The service members’ medical information collected during the historical research can also help reduce the number of potential candidates.

During the anthropological analysis, bone and/or teeth samples are collected for possible use in DNA and stable isotope analysis.

Dental card on enlistment
A document showing
the state of a
soldier’s teeth upon

Forensic odontology

Members of the Royal Canadian Dental Corps’ Canadian Forces Forensic Odontology Response Team regularly support the Casualty Identification Program. Teeth and jaws can be unique to an individual and used to identify remains. If dental records are available, the forensic odontologists are able to make comparisons that may lead to identification.

Stable isotope analysis

Stable isotope analysis can be used to lower the number of potential candidates by revealing where the serviceman spent his childhood. The body absorbs oxygen from water and food over a lifetime. The amount of absorbed oxygen isotopes will be different based on geography. Because the values of these oxygen isotopes have been recorded in a global database, they can be used to show where someone has lived.

Oxygen isotopes are included into the enamel of teeth during its development. Since dental enamel does not change during one’s lifetime, analysis of teeth can provide geographical information on an individual’s early years of life.

Historical research can determine where each potential candidate lived, including their place of birth. This information is then compared against the results of the laboratory analysis to lower the number of potential candidates.

Genealogical research

Mr. David Carey
Mr. David Carey receiving the Canadian flag and
medals belonging to his great-uncle Flight Sergeant
John Joseph Carey. Used with permission.

Genealogical research is used by DHH to locate family members of missing servicemen who are able and willing to give a DNA sample. Participation in the investigation by family members is voluntary.

DNA testing

DNA analysis is used to identify remains and exclude potential candidates. DNA samples collected from the remains are compared with samples from family members to see if their DNA profiles are from the same familial lineage.

The Casualty Identification Program typically uses mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to identify remains which is passed unchanged from mother to child. MtDNA survives well and is very stable over many generations, but its stability may also lead to similar profiles in people who are not closely related. Even with its limitations, mtDNA is a very useful tool that can help to establish parentage that goes back many generations.

The Casualty Identification Program also uses a type of nuclear DNA called Y-chromosome short tandem repeat (Y-STR). Y-STR DNA is passed from father to son and is genetically stable, but does not survive well in skeletal remains. Unfortunately, some samples from the remains do not provide a Y-STR sample that is suitable for comparison, which means this method cannot always be used.

Both types of DNA are a very reliable way to exclude potential candidates. One or both types of DNA can be used in an investigation to try to identify the remains by including the candidate as being from the same lineage and/or excluding other candidates.

Artefact conservation

The Canadian Conservation Institute provides conservation services to the Casualty Identification Program. A number of artefacts, including identification discs, have been treated and restored by the Canadian Conservation Institute. In some cases, the restored artefacts proved to be imperative in achieving a positive identification.

Personal artefacts are returned to the next-of-kin and provide a memento to the family remembering the fallen.