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Newfoundland's unknown soldier returns home from France after more than 100 years

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A group of military personnel carry a coffin covered with a Canadian flag.
The remains of the unknown soldier from Newfoundland were transferred to Canadian ownership on Saturday during a ceremony in Beaumont-Hamel, northern France. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

It was a bright, blue-sky day at the foot of the Caribou Memorial of the Newfoundland Regiment of France, high above the lush green hills of Beaumont-Hamel – fitting for a well-attended ceremony to mark the repatriation of an unknown soldier to Newfoundland more than 100 years after the First World War.

“O Canada,” “La Marseillaise,” “Last Post,” and “Ode to Newfoundland” rang out across the centuries-old battlefield, which otherwise lies silent and commemorates one of the greatest disasters in the province’s history.

Jacob Neil, a St. John's native and Parks Canada guide leader at the Beaumont-Hamel Historic Site, was chosen to sing the ode for the ceremony.

“I was asked if I would be interested in doing this. I know the prospect of doing this on such a prestigious and important day is a little daunting. I knew I couldn't pass this up,” Neil told CBC News. “It's a privilege just to be here and be able to take part in this ceremony. It's something I will cherish forever.”

Neil said the mood on the ground is always somewhat subdued, but this weekend's handover ceremony – in which France handed over the remains of the unknown soldier to Canada – was marked by excitement.

“Given the tragedy that happened here over 100 years ago, closure is probably not attainable for people, but for the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, I think it is something similar,” he said.

WATCH | Newfoundland's Unknown Soldier Prepares to Return Home:

Over 100 years after the First World War, an unknown soldier returns home from Newfoundland

The remains of the unknown Newfoundland soldier were returned to Canada on Saturday during a transfer ceremony in Beaumont Hamel, northern France. The soldier's remains will be reburied in a newly constructed granite burial chamber at the foot of the Newfoundland National War Memorial in St. John's.

For Frank Sullivan, this degree is exactly what he got. Sullivan is a member of the Royal Canadian Legion's Newfoundland and Labrador Command and part of the small team of Legionnaires who were instrumental in the construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in St. John's.

Saturday's ceremony was one of the final steps toward realizing that dream.

“I'm at a loss for words right now. This is a moment I'm going to 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 handed over to our Canadian military, oh my, words cannot describe the feeling.”

An elderly man in military uniform holds a red and white flag.
Frank Sullivan was part of the team that helped build a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in St. John's. Here he holds the flag that Newfoundland soldiers served under in World War I. The flag will be returned to St. John's and placed on the casket during the funeral. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

On the way home

The Canadian and Newfoundland delegations will return home from France. Another member will travel with them.

The coffin of the unknown soldier is now draped in a Canadian flag and will land in St. John's on Saturday evening.

From there, a parade will pass through the city, passing sites of historical significance to the Newfoundland Regiment, including the training ground at Pleasantville, the harbour where the SS Florizel would have docked, the Sergeants' Memorial, the CLB Armoury and Parade Street.

Prime Minister Andrew Furey has been on site with his family throughout this week's events, which began in northern France on Wednesday.

“It was incredibly moving, historic, special, spiritual. Seeing the casket again and standing there with my son and realizing that someone's son – our son – is now coming home is incredibly emotional,” Furey said shortly after the ceremony on Saturday morning.

“I've had several breakdowns. This is a really special and historic moment for all of Newfoundland and Labrador. It was an honour to be here today as Prime Minister.”

A group of military personnel stand over a coffin near a memorial.
Members of the French military carried the coffin of the unknown soldier of Newfoundland to the transfer ceremony at the foot of the Newfoundland Regiment memorial in Beaumont-Hamel. (Ted Dillon/CBC)

Saturday's ceremony is the prelude to another significant event taking place on July 1. The date marks Memorial Day in Newfoundland and Labrador and the 100th anniversary of the Newfoundland National War Memorial in downtown St. John's.

Preparations are currently underway to renovate the site in front of this milestone. The unknown soldier will find his final resting place in a newly constructed grave.

“This will be another historic moment. I encourage all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, if they can, to come and celebrate this young man and all the young men we leave behind,” Furey said.

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

The soldier will lie in state at the Confederation Building from June 28 to 30 and the public will have the opportunity to view the coffin.

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