From his home office in West Yorkshire, England, Richard Hemsley leafs through a folder of papers. He chooses one and then looks up.

“I’ll read it to you when I put my glasses on,” he says. When he has adjusted his version, he begins to write a condolence letter to his grandfather, Lt. Francis Hemsley.

“He was indeed one of God’s good men,” it begins. The letter was written to Francis’ wife by someone he knew during World War I. Richard comes to the last line.

“Although his family regrets his untimely end, they have every reason to be proud of him and his glorious death,” it said.

“Quite a moving letter, isn’t it?”

Although he never met his grandfather, Richard and his family know so much about Francis thanks to decades of their own research.

Almost everything, actually, except where his remains lay.

It took a few Canadians – and a few buttons – to put this missing link together.

Of war and farmland

Francis Hemsley was born in England in 1880. Richard said his grandfather, whom he calls Frank, fought in the British Army in South Africa and then emigrated to Canada in 1911. Richard believes the move was part of Canada’s efforts to get British military men to farm the prairies.

A group of people stand in a row.  On the far left is a child, a few women and then a few men.  The photo is more than 100 years old.
Francis Hemsley (far right) takes a family photo in England before moving to Canada in 1911. His grandson Richard Hemsley says Francis was over 6 feet tall. (Submitted by Richard Hemsley)

Francis moved to Canada with his brothers-in-law and ended up near Prince Albert, Sask., about 360 kilometers north of Regina. Richard said his grandfather built a log cabin that his family would move into a year later. These included his wife Adina Hebden, their son, who would become Richard’s father, and their daughter.

A group of five men are sitting and standing in front of some bushes.  All the men are well dressed, in jackets and suits.  The photo is more than 100 years old.
Francis Hemsley (center) and his brothers-in-law before moving to Canada in 1911. (Submitted by Richard Hemsley)

Francis lived there for almost five years. While Richard notes that he doesn’t know much about his grandfather’s life in Saskatchewan, he does know that Francis and his wife had another son. He also joined the 52nd Prince Albert Volunteers – a militia regiment – ​​where he became a lieutenant.

Then war called.

Francis moved to Winnipeg, where he and two brothers joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force, while his wife and children returned to England.

“My feeling is [Francis] “I wanted to participate not only on behalf of Canada, where they had taken up residence and naturalized, but also on behalf of England, which was waging a war against Germany,” Richard said.

The enlistment papers list Francis Hemsley's information such as his birthday and full name.
Francis Hemsley moved from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to Winnipeg in 1916 to enlist in Canada so he could fight with them in the First World War. (Library and Archives Canada)

But just weeks into his deployment, Lieutenant Hemsley was killed while helping the 16th Battalion fight the Battle of Hill 70 in France – a bloody effort that ended with nearly 10,000 Canadian casualties.

Lieutenant Hemsley was 37. And that’s where Richard’s knowledge of his grandfather ended.

“When I was growing up, all we knew was that he had been killed in France in 1917 and was hit directly by the shell,” he said.

“We were told there was no body to bury.”

But that wasn’t entirely true.

Canadian team solves the mystery

According to the Canadian Department of Defense (DND), Lieutenant Hemsley’s remains were discovered in 2012 by a bomb disposal team clearing space for construction work in Venden-le-Vieil, France. Along with his bones, emergency services found parts of a gas mask and helmet, a pair of boots and several buttons marked “16. Battalion, Canadian-Scottish Regiment”.

Five weathered buttons can be seen on a ruler, suggesting they are only a few centimeters wide.  Some show it clearly "16th Battalion Canadian Scottish Regiment."
At the remains of Lt. Buttons found by Francis Hemsley narrowed the search for his identity as they showed which battalion he fought with in the First World War. (Ministry of National Defense)

Everything was handed over to DND Accident Victim Identification Program: a group dedicated to exploring the stories of unknown Canadian remains from international conflicts.

The 16th Battalion buttons narrowed the search, but refinement would require DNA analysis.

However, when Francis’ bones were first found, the team was only able to extract DNA from his mother’s side and not his father’s side. According to Sarah Lockyer, the forensic anthropologist who leads the program, the team was only able to search for parts of Francis’ family using maternal DNA.

“In some cases, unfortunately, there are no longer any living DNA donors. They are all deceased. So in this case, we are stuck when we no longer have a maternal relative,” she said.

But last year they tried again with the new DNA technology. The team successfully extracted paternal DNA from Francis’ bones, discovered new relatives and led Lockyer to Richard Hemsley.

“This was the first time I was able to speak to a grandson who was a DNA donor for a World War I victim,” she said.

A woman in a cardigan and lace top smiles.  It stands in the aisles of filing cabinets.
Sarah Lockyer, a forensic anthropologist, leads the victim identification program. It is a team within the Department of Defense dedicated to identifying unknown remains of Canadians killed in the conflict. (Felix Desroches/CBC)

Lockyer said this case is also unique because it involves the first remains of an officer she has identified — she typically works with the bodies of privates or sergeants.

Francis’ case was also rare, she said, because Richard and his family knew so much themselves.

“Admittedly, most of the time when we are either calling DNA donors or identifying the next of kin of someone we have identified, they have no idea who we are talking about,” Lockyer said.

“But in this case with Lt. Hemsley, they have all these anecdotes, family stories and photos and that makes it that much more special and emotional.”

As technology advances, Lockyer hopes it can uncover more family secrets like the Hemsleys’.

She has 42 more skeletons to identify, but says there are more than 27,000 Canadians who died in conflict and for whom there is no known grave.

“Every year numerous human remains are discovered during construction work or in agriculture and we hope to be able to identify them so that they can be buried with their name by their regiment and hopefully in the presence of the family,” she said.

An official farewell

Years ago, Richard took his own family to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial to feel his grandfather’s legacy. He even tried to find out where he was killed.

Now they will return to France this summer for a proper military reburial. He said they would add a personal touch to the farewell.

“His tombstone will read, ‘He was one of God’s good men.'”

A weathered photo shows a man and two young boys standing in preserved trenches in France.
Richard Hemsley brought his own family to Canada’s Vimy Ridge Memorial years ago to learn more about his grandfather’s legacy. (Submitted by Richard Hemsley)

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