By Laura Keil
On Oct. 28th 2022, the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) confirmed that remains recovered during a munitions clearing process in Vendin-le-Vieil, France, belong to Private Harry Atherton, a Canadian soldier of the First World War, who lived in McBride B.C. The government says the identity was confirmed through historical, genealogical, anthropological, archaeological and DNA analysis.
Harry Atherton was born in Leigh, England, in 1892, and grew up in Tyldesley, England. He moved to Canada in 1913 by himself. He settled in McBride, and worked as a carpenter before enlisting in March 1916.
Atherton joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) with the 63rd Canadian Infantry Battalion (Edmonton) at the age of 23. The following month, Private Atherton left the port of Saint John, New Brunswick, bound for England. After training, he arrived in France in July 1916, as a member of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and fought in several battles before being wounded and sent back to England to recover. He returned to the front in March 1917.
On 15 August 1917, Private Atherton fought with the 10th Battalion during the first day of the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, France.
In July 1917, the Canadian Corps received orders to capture the city of Lens. Lieutenant-General Sir A.W. Currie, the newly appointed Corps Commander, planned to first take the high feature of Hill 70 that dominated Lens from the north.
The attack, originally planned for the end of July, was postponed due to weather until mid-August. This allowed the Canadian Corps to increase its preparations for the coming operation.
As part of its preparations, the Canadian Corps conducted raids against German outposts and the Canadian gunners undertook a programme of wire-cutting, destroying German artillery positions and gas shelling.
Engineers also prepared special drums of oil to be used on the morning of the attack to create a smoke screen.
The infantry rehearsed their attack over similar terrain, but unlike previous attacks, there was no large preparatory barrage which would have given the enemy warning of an impending operation.
The surprise attack started at 4:25 a.m. August 15th under cover of an immense artillery barrage. A simulated attack by the 4th Division in front of Lens served as a diversion for the 1st and 2nd Division who successfully captured Hill 70, which remained in Allied hands until the end of the war.
Over the next several days, the Germans mounted at least 21 counterattacks against the Canadian defenders of Hill 70.
The battle, which lasted from August 15 to 25 cost the Canadians almost 10,000 casualties (killed, wounded and missing), 1300 of whom have no known grave.
Atherton was reported wounded Aug 15th but later reports stated that he had been killed in action. He was 24 years old.
The government says Atherton will be buried at the earliest opportunity in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Loos British Cemetery in Loos-en-Gohelle, France.
“His courage and selfless service can never be fully repaid,” said The Honourable Anita Anand, Minister of National Defence. “But Canada will remember and honour him, and those like him who gave so much for this country in the First World War. To his family I extend my sympathy and gratitude.”
“Though it has been more than a century since we lost Private Atherton in the Battle of Hill 70 during the First World War, I’m proud that we were able to identify his remains and provide him with a proper burial,” said The Honourable Lawrence MacAulay, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence. “His contributions to Canada will never be forgotten.”
Harry Atherton was born in England in 1893, the son of James Henry Atherton and Sarah Atherton (née Bradbury). He is commemorated on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, erected in memory of Canadian soldiers killed in France during the First World War who have no known grave.