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‘Hard to put into words,’

Woodrow French of the Canadian Peacekeepers Veterans Association lays a wreath at the Caribou Memorial in Gueudecourt, France last week as his son, Greg French, looks on. French was part of a large contingent from Canada that went to France to repatriate the remains of an unknown Newfoundland soldier from the Great War who will be interred at the National War Memorial on Duckworth Street in St. John’s on Memorial Day, July 1.

By Mark Squibb

Former Conception Bay South Mayor and retired Royal Canadian Air Force member Woodrow French was amongst the dozens of Newfoundlanders in France last weekend to participate in a transfer ceremony for the remains of an unknown Newfoundland solider who fought during World War One.

“We brought a fallen comrade home, and that in and of itself was great,” said French. “It was probably one of the most emotional experiences I’ve ever had. It was just profound.”

French, who is the president of the Newfoundland chapter of the Canadian Peacekeepers Veterans Association, estimates there were perhaps 70 other people from this province, including Reserve soldier Riley Baggs, also of CBS, who participated in the repatriation.

French said the handover ceremony, when members of the French military presented the casket of the unknown solider to Canadian pallbearers at the foot of Beaumont-Hamel’s Newfoundland Regiment memorial, was the emotional highlight.

“You saw the French soldiers coming, and you thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’” said French. “The military precision of it was phenomenal.”

He said he was proud to see the reverence the French still hold for the Newfoundland Regiment, whose members fought valiantly in the First World War.

French hopes the return of the unknown soldier’s remains to his homeland will spark more conversations about how to remember the veterans we have lost, and how to help those still with us.

“Pretty well every community here in the province was affected by the Great War,” said French. “People were lost, people went over and came back, some with wounds, some without, and some with PTSD, and some without. And we’re able to do the things we do today because of these people who fought and died for our freedoms. The thing that can’t be lost is that the freedom that we have to express our views, and to do what we do in this province, is on the shoulders of these men who served in that war. And it puts the onus back on us residents today to be cognizant of this and to remember.”

French said young people can join Cadet groups and learn about the military while doing good for the community, and possibly even consider a career in the military themselves, while adults can join a local Royal Canadian Legion Branch, such as Branch 50 in CBS, of which French is a longstanding member.

The remains of the unknown solider, meanwhile, arrived in St. John’s Saturday evening, and will be entombed at the National War Memorial, currently under refurbishment, on Memorial Day, July 1.

“He represents everyone who served in that war, who died in that war, those who were never found,” said French. “It’s really hard to put into words how I feel. But it was one powerful, powerful trip.”

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