Newfoundland’s unknown soldier begins journey home from France after more than 100 years

The remains of Newfoundland’s unknown soldier were transferred to Canadian possession on Saturday during a ceremony at Beaumont-Hamel in northern France. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

It was a bright day with blue skies at the foot of the Newfoundland Regiment caribou memorial in France that stands tall overlooking the lush green mounds of Beaumont-Hamel — fitting for a packed ceremony to bring an unknown soldier home to Newfoundland more than 100 years after the First World War. 

O Canada, La Marseillaise, the Last Post and the Ode to Newfoundland rang out across the century-old battlefield that usually sits silent, serving as a reminder for one of the largest catastrophes in the province’s history. 

Jacob Neil is from St. John’s and is supervisor of the guide team at the Beaumont-Hamel historic site with Parks Canada. He was tasked with singing the Ode for the ceremony.

“It’s something that I was asked if I’d be interested in. I know the prospect of it is a little bit daunting on such a prestigious and important day. It’s something I knew I couldn’t pass up,” Neil told CBC News. “It’s a privilege to just be here and to be able to participate in this ceremony. It’s something that I’ll treasure forever.” 

Neil said the mood on site is always a little sombre, but this weekend’s transfer ceremony — one that saw France turn over the remains of the unknown soldier to Canada — had an aura of excitement.

“Closure is not something that can probably be attained for people, given the tragedy that happened here over 100 years ago, but it’s something close to that, I think, for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said.

WATCH | Newfoundland’s unknown soldier prepares for the journey home:

Newfoundland’s unknown solider is returning home over 100 years after First World War

The remains of Newfoundland’s unknown soldier were placed in the possession of Canada on Saturday during a transfer ceremony at Beaumont Hamel in northern France. The soldier’s remains will be re-interred inside a newly constructed granite burial chamber at the base of the Newfoundland National War Memorial in St. John’s.

For Frank Sullivan, closure is exactly what he got. Sullivan is a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador command of the Royal Canadian Legion and part of the small team of legionnaires who were instrumental in creating a tomb of the unknown solider in St. John’s. 

Saturday’s ceremony was among the final steps in having that dream come to fruition. 

“Words fail me right now. It’s a moment that I’ll die with. What can I say? We’re bringing a son home, somebody’s son is coming home,” Sullivan said.

“When he was brought in by the French military and turned over to our Canadian military, oh my, words can’t describe the feeling.”

An older man wearing military fatigues holding a red and white flag.
Frank Sullivan was part of the team that was instrumental in getting a tomb of the unknown soldier placed in St. John’s. Here he holds the flag that Newfoundland soldiers served under during the First World War. The flag will travel back to St. John’s and be placed on the casket during the lying in state. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Heading home

From France, the Canadian and Newfoundland and Labrador delegation will return home. With them, an added member. 

With his casket now draped in a Canadian flag, the unknown solider will land in St. John’s Saturday evening. 

From there, a parade through the city passing by sites of historical significance to the Newfoundland Regiment, including the training grounds in Pleasantville, the harbour where the S.S. Florizel would have tied up, the Sergeants’ Memorial, C.L.B. Armoury and Parade Street.

Premier Andrew Furey was on the ground with his family for the duration of this week’s events that began on Wednesday in northern France. 

“It was incredibly moving, historic, special, spiritual. To see the casket again and to be standing there with my son, realizing that somebody’s son — our son collectively — is now coming home is incredibly emotional,” Furey said shortly after Saturday morning’s ceremony.

“I broke down several times. It’s a truly special and historic moment for all of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was an honour to be here today as premier.”

A group of military members standing over a casket near a memorial site.
Members of the French military carried the casket of Newfoundland’s unknown soldier to the transfer ceremony at the foot of the Newfoundland Regiment memorial at Beaumont-Hamel. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Saturday’s ceremony is the pre-cursor to another significant event that is taking place on July 1. The date marks Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador and 100 years of the Newfoundland National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s. 

Preparations have been underway to refurbish the site ahead of the milestone and will be the final resting place for the unknown soldier, inside a newly constructed tomb. 

“It’ll be another historic moment. I encourage every Newfoundlander and Labradorian, if they can, to come to celebrate this young man and all the young men that we’re leaving behind,” said Furey.

“I think July 1 will be powerful and I encourage everyone to participate and reflect on what it means for the sacrifice these young men made.”

The soldier will lie in state at Confederation Building from June 28 to June 30, allowing members of the public to visit the casket.

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