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After more than 100 years, Newfoundland's unknown soldier returns home

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An unknown Newfoundland soldier, who fought and died on the battlefields in northeastern France during the First World War, is back home this weekend for the first time in more than a hundred years.

With hearses, a plane and a fighter jet escort, a one-of-a-kind repatriation has returned the soldier back to St. John's. He will eventually be entombed at the National War Memorial in the city's downtown.

"To know that somebody's father, somebody's mother, didn't know where this person was, and now we're bringing them home, answering their prayers," Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey said, who walked in the procession as the official next-of-kin. "Overwhelming to be there with my son, and just feel the weight of being premier and a father at the same time."

The soldier's remains were handed back to Canada -- and to members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment -- at a ceremony Saturday morning at the Beaumont-Hamel memorial site.

French soldiers handed off the casket underneath a Caribou monument, one of six similar monuments commemorating Newfoundland's effort during the First World War, dubbed the Trail of the Caribou.

"It's a moment I'll die with," said Frank Sullivan, a member of the Newfoundland and Labrador Command at the Royal Canadian Legion. "What can you say when you're bringing a son home?"

A casket of an unknown soldier arrives in St. John’s and is carried into a hearse by pallbearers. (CTV)

 

Sullivan served in the navy for decades, and was a big part of the push in Newfoundland and Labrador to reclaim one of its war dead.

Beaumont-Hamel was the site of a devastating battle that defined Newfoundland's war effort, and its post-war history.

On the morning of July 1, 1916, hundreds of soldiers were killed in minutes after British superiors ordered the troops over the top of the trenches, through a few holes cut through barbed wire, and into relentless German machine-gun fire.

It was part of the Battle of the Somme, and the British "big push" strategy. But Newfoundland — a separate dominion until 1949 — raised its own military force. The battle at Beaumont Hamel was the most devastating in the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's history, and less than 10 per cent of the troops answered roll call the next day.

Newfoundland and Labrador has become the first regional government within the Commonwealth Countries to repatriate an unknown soldier. The event was timed for the hundred anniversary of the opening of the National War Memorial in St. John's.

Officials won't say exactly where the unknown soldier died, as they hope he will represent all of the Newfoundlanders who fought overseas and died with no known graves. Of the 1,700 Newfoundlanders who died in the First World War, more than 800 have no known gravesites. 

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