No-one had talked much about former Coatbridge man Alexander Johnston over time, the name only rarely coming up in conversation when old photo books were opened up and shared by his family.
All that was certain is that he went to fight in the First World War, and never came home.
However, unbeknown to his descendants, exhaustive work had been going on to piece together the story of the soldier since his body was found in 2008 by construction workers close to where the Battle of the Canal du Nord was fought in late 1918.
The regimental collar badges found by his remains narrowed down the identity of the fallen soldier to two possible soldiers, with Private Johnston’s name finally confirmed using DNA technology following a two-year search.
As a result, his remaining family in Scotland and Canada are to gather in France on Tuesday, when Private Johnston will finally be laid to rest in the Le Cantimpre Canadian War cemetery with an official reception planned for his relatives.
For his great, great nephew Willie Johnston, of Airdre, North Lanarkshire, the landmark moment in his family’s history presents a range of emotions.
Mr Johnston, 64, said: “There has been an absolutely phenomenal amount of effort put in about my great, great uncle and it has been very humbling.
“Obviously I didn’t know Alexander Johnston, he died before I was born, but I have got a bit emotional as it is quite sad when you think about what happened to him. I am looking forward to going to France, but there is a fair bit of trepidation about it too.”
Alexander Johnston was born in Coatbridge in 1885 and like his sister, Jessie, and father, William, who is thought to have worked as a butcher and a joiner in the Old Monkland area, left Lanarkshire to make a new life in Canada.
He arrived in Hamilton, Ontario, when he was in his late 20s and in the new year of 1918 joined the 78th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Nine months later, at the age of 33, Private Johnston was killed during the Battle of the Canal du Nord just weeks before the end of the war. His remains were discovered less than half-a-mile from the battleground, at Raillencourt Saint-Olle.
Mr Johnston said: “Whether another shell came along and created another crater and the soil was thrown on top of him, we will never really know. I think he was pretty much found where he fell.”
Mr Johnston was contacted after a researcher for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tracked him down following a manual search of the births, marriages and deaths notices in The Herald archive.
The forensic anthropologist working on the case of the fallen soldier had discounted the other potential match given the height of Private Johnston, which had been documented when he signed up for the army.
Mr Johnston received a telephone call asking him to give a DNA sample to help with the search, but it was a specimen from another great, great nephew of Private Johnston, Donald Gregory, of Ottawa, Canada, that provided that all-important match.
“I didn’t do the DNA match in the end as apparently the DNA that comes through the male side seems to decay rather rapidly and it wouldn’t be a great deal of use.
“The DNA that comes through the female side is rather more persistent and that is where Donald Gregory, who is the same relation to Alexander Johnston as me but on his mother’s side, comes in to the story.”
Mr Johnston said that one of the main aspects of his unfolding family history was the new connection forged with Mr Gregory, who himself holds a host of information about the Johnston family members who made Canada their home.
“It seems that we have got more family in Canada that we do now in Scotland. I am always working out where they all fit in and it has been very nice getting to know people who you knew existed, but never knew before,” Mr Johnston said.