Cliff Teague didn’t know much about the uncle he was named after.
Clifford Abraham Neelands fought for Canada in World War I and went missing in action in 1918, five years before his nephew was born.
“We didn’t dwell on it,” said Teague, 91. “We knew that was the situation, and I guess that was it.”
But that wasn’t it forever. Questions about Uncle Clifford’s death have been answered after nearly a century.
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A teenage boy found some buttons and other artifacts in his family’s yard in northern France about eight years ago. A deeper dig at the site revealed the remains of eight people – soldiers who lost their lives on that soil.
The Canadian government contacted Teague’s family, and a DNA test confirmed last year that one of the bodies was that of Uncle Clifford.
Last month, Teague and his 89-year-old wife, Maggie, traveled from their Cary home to France to take part in a documentary about World War I. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation filmed the project.
The Teagues visited the boy, now a man, whose curiosity brought closure after so many years. They laid poppies on the trench where the bodies were found. They saw the cemetery where Uncle Clifford will be buried next year.
They brought home the fountain pen that was found with the remains – likely Clifford’s, because as a lieutenant, he would have carried such a pen.
They also brought home two buttons, probably from soldiers’ coats. Teague found one of them the day he visited the site. He happened to spot it on the ground.
The Canadian government has identified four of the eight bodies that were discovered, said Lynne Chichakian, a producer for the CBC documentary unit.
It’s not uncommon for soldiers’ remains to be found in France, Chichakian said.
As part of a documentary to mark the 100th anniversary of the war, filmmakers took four families, including the Teagues, to France to talk about what happened on Aug. 11, 1918, in a place called Hallu.
“It was the big push to end the war,” Chichakian said.
Many Canadian soldiers died in the fighting, falling to German troops. Neelands – Uncle Clifford – just 26, never made it off the battlefield.
‘A very peaceful feeling’
Although Cliff Teague grew up without hearing much about his mother’s brother, he felt a push to serve his own country. The Texas boy volunteered for the Navy during World War II when he saw everyone around him being drafted.
He met Maggie in 1945 in Michigan, where he served with a unit that tested missiles. Maggie, who grew up in Canada, was visiting an aunt and uncle.
They married later that year, and Cliff Teague went on to a career in electronics. His job with IBM brought the couple from Upstate New York to Cary in 1966.
A century might have a way of blurring history, of making it unreal somehow. Chichakian said she couldn’t put into words what the trip to France meant to the soldiers’ families.
“It’s hard to say,” she said. “I think it was very emotional for them.”
Cliff Teague has lived through so much that his uncle never got to experience – the Great Depression, a second world war, the joy of raising a family.
But now, 96 years after Uncle Clifford died in that trench in northern France, his nephew has some answers, another link to his family’s past.
“It gives me a very peaceful feeling,” he said.
Maggie Teague put it this way: “It’s kind of awesome to realize that after a hundred years we can do all this. And at 90 years old to be given the opportunity to do this – what a privilege.”