First World War graves rededicated thanks to research by retired RCN officer
By Ryan Melanson,
More than 100 years after their deaths during the First World War, two British airmen and one Canadian soldier were recently honoured in France with grave rededication ceremonies officially marking their final resting places with full military honours.
The graves of Lt Leonard Cameron Kidd (pilot) and 2Lt Fenton Ellis Stanley Phillips (observer) of No.3 Squadron RAF were rededicated at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in France, while the ceremony for Lance Cpl Robert King, of the 26 Battalion CEF, was held at the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery.
But neither of these events would have taken place if not for the thorough research conducted by LCdr (ret’d) Steve St-Amant,a recently retired RCN officer with a passion for military history.
As the Deputy CF Intelligence Liaison Officer to the UK from 2012-2015, St-Amant would often vacation on the Somme in France, and with two young boys in tow, trips to war graves and cemeteries, where he liked to search for unidentified headstones, became a popular family activity.
“I had started looking for headstones in these cemeteries that had potential to be identified,” he said.
And with the recent digitization of a massive collection of archives from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in 2014, a new tool was unlocked to help historians identify the dead buried beneath these gravestones. Information online helped him narrow down possible identities for the British air crew, such as that they had been both been awarded the military cross, a rare occurrence for both a pilot and observer.
“And because we were living in London, I had rapid access to different archives, and I was able to go check out the war diaries of these two men. Where the bodies had been found was quite consistent with where they had been flying.”
He was eventually able to determine the men had been killed in the Battle of the Somme in October 1916, hit by anti-aircraft fire during a low patrol flight.
A similar process was followed to identify Lance Cpl King, originally from New Brunswick, who was killed in August 1918. By searching online for all of the Canadian soldiers of that rank killed in 1918 and whittling it down from there, and eventually matching information on the grave to the location of Lance Cpl King’s death, St-Amant was confident. He submitted paperwork for both the British and Canadian graves about two years ago, and had his research confirmed this year by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
St. Amant also credited his wife Niamh, who works with DND in Halifax as a Workforce Manager Services Coordinator at FMF Cape Scott, for all the support she offered with the project, including hours of research and time spent at grave sites.
“Between the two of us, we’ve probably scoured more than 25,000 headstones,” he said.
The couple, who now live in the Halifax area, travelled for France for the rededication ceremonies, which were held on October 12 and 13. They were moving tributes to the fallen airmen and soldier and well organized, St. Amant said. And in the case of the British graves, the rededication was attended by current members of 3 Squadron RAF, representatives from the Bromsgrove School where Lt Kidd once attended, as well as family members, including a living first cousin of Lt Kidd and a great niece and great nephew of 2Lt Phillips. Following the ceremonies, the St. Amants had the opportunity to take family members to the site where the aircraft went down, got to know them better over dinner, and passed on much of their research on the two men to the families.
“That was a highlight for me in all this. They knew about the story, but they didn’t know a lot, so this helped them connect with their family history a little bit.”
In the RAF account of the ceremonies, Flight Lt James Mealy, the Padre for 3 Squadron, said it was an honour for him to travel to France and be part of honouring the men and thanked the Canadians for their research in uncovering the information.
“They are remarkable and brave young officers who gave their everything so we can enjoy our today. Also, as the 3 (Fighter) Squadron Padre, it is especially meaningful to me to finally give these two men the honour and blessing that they deserve and give praise and thanksgiving to God for the sacrifice they gave for us. Their names will continue to live on.”