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Identifying a WWI Soldier

By: | April 12, 2011

Guest blogger Christian Corbet fills us in on Newfoundland and Labrador’s role in The Avion I Project


It was the spring of 2003 and two workmen in France discovered the remains of two WWI soldiers, both from Canada and both from the 49th Battalion, Loyal Edmonton Regiment, Alberta. Within 8 years a lost soldier was to be given a name and our province was to be a part of ground breaking research.

In late summer 2008 my mentor and colleague Dr. Andrew Nelson from the Dept. of Anthropology at the University of Western Ontario contacted me and asked if I was interested in doing a forensic reconstruction of a WWI soldier called Avion I. Naturally, I accepted and soon a resin replica skull was dispatched to me from which to work. There was an idea of who it may be since there were 6 missing soldiers from the regiment. It could have been any one of them but the goal was to find out who this man was by creating a forensic reconstruction and then hopefully locating relatives to make a definitive identification through DNA. Within 5 days my forensic work was complete, which assisted in narrowing the search down to 2 soldiers; one with a photo and one without; one born in Canada and one not.

In January 2011 after two and a half years, word came in that the isotopes in his teeth indicated oxygen levels matching those in Ireland.

A genealogist worked tirelessly to locate family of the two candidates but that came up dry, neither of the men married nor had issues. Who could this soldier be and how could we determine his name? The eventual answer lay with Dr. Nelson, Dr. Christine White and Dr. Fred Longstaffe, all of UWO. Dr. Nelson suggested isotope testing to determine from the enamel on the teeth of the two subjects where they were born. We all waited patiently for the Department of National Defense to make an announcement. In January 2011 after two and a half years, word came in that the isotopes in his teeth indicated oxygen levels (from water consumption in approximately the first ten years of his life) matching those in Ireland. The solider was determined to be Pte. Thomas Lawless born at Santry, Dublin, Ireland. A soldier once lost was now found. He was identified in part by the forensic facial reconstruction and then through the means of modern science of isotope research definitively identified using his teeth. This is believed to be a first in the identification of a missing person.

Post ID

In the days after the identification I was asked to complete the artistic completion of the facial reconstruction. It is at this stage where I can add my own slant on how I texturize the subject, angle the eyes, adjust the lips… basically bringing the subject back to “life” as we know it. For 5 long days at over 12 hours a day I worked in my studio with my protégé, Benjamin Trickett Mercer, a visual arts student from Memorial University, to slowly realize Pte. Lawless’ countenance without the assistance of a photo.

Eventually, relatives were located both in Ireland and Canada but still there was no known existing photo of Thomas Lawless. I relied heavily on the underlying forensic sculpture of the face “for the bones don’t lie!” Then, in a single second, a spiritual moment occurred where I knew he was back and I whispered, “Welcome back Pte. Lawless.”  It was an emotional realization.

The following weeks the media was all abuzz on the topic and the wonderful multidisciplinary collaborative team with which I worked. This wasn’t a one person show; this was the work of many minds and hands coming together as one for a common cause to make history. However the question remained, “How close was my facial reconstruction?” This made me nervous but soon a photo was to be revealed of Thomas’ elder brother Mathew and the marked resemblance was significant.

This hero went missing and was near forgotten about for almost a century.

Upon returning from the military funeral in France I spoke to Dr. Nelson again to give a full report of my experience of attending the full military burial. Naturally, I was still floating with excitement from having been formally invited to attend Pte. Lawless’ interment; meeting his wonderful niece, great nieces and nephews and other family. Then it donned on me, an odd thought crossed my mind but I would ask it anyway, “Why not ask Dr. Nelson if we should do a CT scan of the reconstruction of Pte. Lawless?”

Dr. Nelson, with his always great level of enthusiasm, thought it an excellent idea and within a day I received word that Dr. Gavin White, Chief Radiologist from Western Memorial Regional Hospital, was on board in this unique endeavour. The exciting part of this is that from what we understand this is another first because there is no other known CT scan of a forensic facial reconstruction. This was getting more and more exciting.

Almost a week passed before I made contact with Dr. White who I eventually met at the Gallipoli Armoury in Corner Brook. This unveiling and lecture was the first formal unveiling of the sculpture of Pte. Lawless arranged by the Corner Brook Museum and Archives. The best part about the unveiling was that it could have taken place anywhere – from Canada to Ireland to France – but I wanted our province to experience it first. And rightly so because the Corner Brook community supports the arts and is exceptionally supportive of my art. The event was exceptional!

History made

On the 8th of April in the late afternoon, on the closing of the week, a little bit of history was being made at our local hospital. I arrived with the reconstruction of Pte. Lawless to a very receptive staff. We weighed the sculpture at 14 pounds and then proceeded with the scanning. Western Memorial regional Hospital just so happens to have one of the finest CT scanners in all of Canada. The enthusiastic team scanned the sculpture of Thomas with the greatest of interest and respect and slowly we saw the wonders of modern science work again. Bit by bit on a computer screen we could see the resin scull, tissue markers, clay and everything else imaginable rolling around and dancing on the screen as if something from a science fiction film. How remarkable.

So, I suppose I will answer the common question that most people have when they hear this incredible story, “How does this make you feel to be a part of history, to help put a face and name back to a WWI soldier?” The simple answer is, “Exceptionally humbled.” Since 1995 I have painted and sculpted some of the worlds most noted people from Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother to author Margaret Atwood and from Dame Jane Goodall to the Countess Mountbatten of Burma.

While those subjects are important Pte. Thomas Lawless is something completely different. This was a young man, a solider who came to Canada with dreams but soon enlisted in the Great War only to give his life between June 8th and 9th 1917. He was only 28 yrs old. This hero went missing and was near forgotten about for almost a century. He remained lost along with so many other soldiers but then he was found, identified and now laid to eternal rest. His family now has a sense of closure and a place to visit their relative and that to me is the magic at the end of the story. Where once there was absolute tragedy there is now peace. I am one lucky man to have been asked to play a part in this historical project and content that the province of Newfoundland and Labrador can say that our province played a role in it too.

Check out Christian Corbet’s blog here.

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