Canadian wide-net forensic genetic genealogy (FGG) identifies soldier missing for 106 years

Soldiers MIA are many. Here’s just one example:

He was 23 years old when he fought with the 7th Canadian Infantry Battalion in the Battle of Hill 70 near Lens, France, in August 1917. On Aug. 15, the first day of the fighting, he was reported missing and presumed dead — one day shy of his 24th birthday.

About 10,000 Canadians died, were wounded or went missing during the bloody, 10-day battle, National Defence said, including 1,300 with no known grave.

So the researchers had the monumental task of whittling down Howarth’s identity from a massive list of lost soldiers.

And here’s what used to happen next.

“It is vital to remember that many lied about their age. So that date of birth on [their] attestation papers quite often is incorrect,” she said. […] His possession of [a whistle] suggested he ranked higher than a private, Lockyer said.

The reporter sure made a giant hoo-ha about age right before throwing that whole concept under the bus.

But did WWI soldiers lie about birthdays as much as people being forced to register on Facebook forms? Let’s not pretend this is a century old situation.

I’ve never thought of birthdays as a reliable identifier, especially where people have been disallowed from holding multiple birthday records. If your birthday is so important yet so visibly celebrated, why wouldn’t you have variations?

The lowly whistle was thus treated as a far more reliable issued token of identity than any birth record.

Perhaps think of it as low incentive to steal or tamper when issued a whistle. Primitive technology, the simplest token, yet crucial as an identity clue. A rank insignia would have to match the whistle.

And now methods of solving identity mysteries may be changing rapidly because ever larger immutable identification nets are being cast among the general population. What’s fascinating in this case was a soldier who allegedly had no surviving close relatives.

“That means we have to go up to his grandmother and see if his grandmother had any sisters. And we’re now in the early 1800s and trying to find records from that time,” Lockyer said.

“Then, based on finding out if the grandmother had any sisters … see if we can trace down through the maternal line to somebody who was living today, who’s willing to give a DNA sample.”

It took time, but they finally found a donor — Howarth’s cousin, four times removed.

“They admittedly had no idea who Percy was,” Lockyer said.

The burning question is now of course whether that donor owns and controls the data they consented to provide… or did it become property of the system doing the forensics processing?

I suspect “would you like to help recover the identity of a lost WWI soldier” is a consent request that should have a very, very limited timeframe. And I also suspect currently it’s being treated as a permanent one instead, which may be dangerous.

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