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Unknown soldier from Newfoundland returns home after more than a century in French cemetery

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  • Canadian soldiers cover the coffin of the Unknown Newfoundland Soldier from World War I during the transfer ceremony on May 25 at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in France.Rafael Yaghobzadeh/The Globe and Mail

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He died somewhere in the muddy fields of northern France in 1916, when some of the bloodiest battles of the First World War were taking place and hundreds of thousands of men and women lost their lives.

He has been buried for over a century in a cemetery near Beaumont-Hamel, one of many whose graves are marked simply “Known to God Only.” The only thing known for sure about him is that he was from Newfoundland.

On Saturday, the soldier finally began his journey home.

A coffin containing his remains was handed over by six French soldiers during a solemn ceremony at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. A group of Canadian soldiers received the coffin, covered it with a Canadian flag and carried it to a waiting hearse. An honour guard made up of soldiers from both countries lined the route in silence while a bagpiper played.

Dozens of veterans and officials from the Canadian, French and Newfoundland governments attended the ceremony, which also included poetry readings, prayers and the two national anthems.

The hearse made its way to Lille airport, where the coffin was loaded onto a plane bound for St. John's. On July 1, it will be buried in a new grave for unknown Newfoundland soldiers who died in both world wars when the province was a dominion of the British Empire.

After Britain declared war in August 1914, around 12,000 Newfoundlanders enlisted to fight, representing just over a third of the Dominion's young men at the time. Nearly 3,600 people died or were wounded during World War I, including 800 who fell in the first 30 minutes of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, which took place near Beaumont-Hamel.

The ceremony “was incredibly moving,” said Andrew Furey, the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador. “I broke down several times. It's a really special and historic moment for all of Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Colleen Burger, who lives in Moncton, NB, came to Saturday's ceremony to see her son, who was part of the Canadian Guard of Honour, because she had only recently learned about the Newfoundland Regiment and the losses it had suffered.

“I didn't expect to be so emotional,” she said after the ceremony, adding that as a mother of two sons in the military, she was moved to tears at the sight of the casket and the agony his mother must have gone through waiting for news about her son.

“I'm so grateful that I can reach out to my son and listen to him at any time,” she said. “And for this mother, that means her son is finally going home.”

Danny Neil and his wife Rachael, who live outside Calgary, also came to see their son, who sang Ode to Newfoundland during the ceremony. Mr. Neil's grandfather's brother, Ralph Neil, is one of dozens of names on a plaque at the memorial dedicated to Newfoundland soldiers killed in 1916 whose bodies were never found. Ralph was only 23 when he died, about the same age as Mr. Neil's son.

“You drive through here and it's a beautiful day. And you imagine young Canadians coming here 100 years ago. It's very impressive,” said Neil, who is originally from Newfoundland.

Seamus O'Regan, the Minister for Jobs and Seniors from St. John's, had to pause and collect himself after the ceremony before he could speak about the significance of the ceremony. He had learned years ago that one of his uncles died here in the war and is buried in the memorial cemetery.

“It's about touching his headstone and making that connection,” Mr O'Regan said. Referring to the coffin, he added: “Our son will be our National War Memorial so people can feel that one of their own is there and touch the headstone to make that connection.”