New Brunswick

'A family of brothers': 26th Battalion celebrated in First World War book

A new book, A Family of Brothers, explores the lives of many of the soldiers in New Brunswick's 26th Battalion, who travelled from all corners of the province to fight on the front lines in the First World War.

Author J. Brent Wilson tells the personal stories of those who fought with New Brunswick's 26th Battalion

This photo, which is part of the collection at Moncton's Resurgo Place, shows the A Company of the 26th Battalion from New Brunswick in the First World War. (Resurgo Place)

A new book, A Family of Brothers, explores the lives of many of the soldiers in New Brunswick's 26th Battalion, who travelled from all corners of the province to fight on the front lines in the First World War.

I've tried to paint as wide a picture of what the experience of being a soldier in a battalion like the  26th  was.- J. Brent Wilson

Author J. Brent Wilson, who teaches in the history department at the University of New Brunswick, used letters and diaries to weave together the personal stories of the young men.

"The letters that were sent home by many of the soldiers were published in provincial newspapers throughout the war so there's a great deal of first-hand information that's available," he said.

The 26th Battalion was the only infantry battalion from the province to serve at the front continuously during the First World War, according to Wilson, who is also the editor emeritus of the now 25 books that are part of the New Brunswick Military Heritage Series.

"I've tried to paint as wide a picture of what the experience of being a soldier in a battalion like the 26th was and hopefully it provides part of the story that people may not have been aware of."

A Family of Brothers, by J. Brent Wilson, tells the personal stories of the New Brunswick men who fought as part of the 26th Battalion in the First World War. (Goose Lane Editions)

For Wilson, the most poignant story in his research was that of a young soldier from Shediac.

"Every family always expects the worst — that they're going to get a telegram that something's happened to their loved one," Wilson said. "In his case though … both of his parents died while he was overseas during the Spanish influenza pandemic, so when he came home to Shediac, at the end of the war, both of his parents were gone.

Fought in key battles

In researching the book, Wilson looked through attestation papers, which show where each recruit was born.

He was surprised by how many soldiers came from small New Brunswick villages he had never heard of and "don't really exist anymore."

"I had to spend a bit of time on the internet trying to figure out where these small villages were, so it does give you some sense of how widely the war affected communities all across the province."

Bridget Murphy, the collections and resource library co-ordinator for Resurgo Place, has put together an exhibit of artifacts related to New Brunswick soldiers who served with the 26th Battalion in the First World War. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The title of the book comes from a letter written by a soldier who joined the 26th Battalion in 1916 as a reinforcement, after the unit suffered significant casualties.

Wilson said most of the men came from New Brunswick, but this inexperienced, young soldier was from Ontario.

You look at the uniform and not the person but when you actually look them in the eyes you realize, my God, this kid is like 17.- James Upham , Resurgo  Place

"There were a lot of veterans in the battalion by then and I think he was a little bit nervous about how he would be received, especially coming from outside the province, but he found that the soldiers were very welcoming and he said it was like joining a family of brothers and he very quickly fitted in and was made to feel at home."

The 5,700 men who passed through the ranks of the 26th Battalion fought in "most of the Canadian core's major battles from 1916 onward," said Wilson, including on the Somme at Courcelette in 1916 and Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele in 1917.

"These were very tangible ways in which you could see the success that the battalion had," Wilson said.

"They helped to capture what was left of [Courcelette] — it was pretty much in ruins by then — and then to secure it and a little more than a year later, they were in the same position during the Passchendaele offensive when they helped to capture what was left of the town."

Albert County soldier remembered

Wilson will give a speech at Moncton's Resurgo Place on Wednesday at 7 p.m., which will focus on the Moncton area soldiers who are part of the book.

Resurgo Place has prepared a small exhibit that showcases artifacts related to members of the 26th Battalion who came from the region, including Pte. John W.D. Magee.

Pte. John W.D. Magee of Albert County served with the 26th Battalion. His uniform is part of the permanent collection at the Moncton Museum.

Magee, who was born in 1885, was from Nixon, Albert County, and sailed from Saint John to Europe on the Olympic, the sister ship of the Titanic.

The museum's James Upham, the heritage development officer, said the importance of these soldiers, and the battles they fought, can't be understated.

"These were brutal battles," Upham said. "They were at Vimy, which is one of the most important battles in Canadian history. It was the first victory in World War I, that was the first time that we actually advanced was at Vimy."

Looking closely at an old photo of members of the 26th Battalion, which is part of the collection at the Moncton museum, you can see how young these men in uniform are.

"It's a funny thing about a uniform," Upham said. "You look at the uniform and not the person, but when you actually look them in the eyes you realize, my God, this kid is like 17."

Soldiers wore identification tags like these. The round tag would be removed if a soldier died but the octagonal tag would stay with the body. These tags belonged to Pte. Magee. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

The exhibit at Resurgo Place includes Magee's identification tags and his uniform, which has maple leaf pins on the collar with a large "26" in the middle.

"This is one of the first instances where the Canadian maple leaf becomes really heavily associated with Canadians," Upham said. "At this point we're adopting this as something that unites us all."

These pins, worn by members of the 26th Battalion, were one of the first instances of a maple leaf being used as a Canadian symbol, according to James Upham of Resurgo Place. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Bridget Murphy, collections and resource library co-ordinator for Resurgo, would love for families in the area to share their First World War histories.

"We're really interested in people's stories behind the artifacts. So if people come to Brent's talk and they're inspired and they want their family story told, yes they can come and talk to us and see if it's something that we would like to have."

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