A Family of War Brothers

Letters, diaries and post-war memoirs enrich the soldiers' tale

A Family of Brothers
J Brent Wilson
Goose Lane Editions/
Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society

University of New Brunswick history professor J Brent Wilson’s contribution to the growing body of literature about the First World War is well timed to take advantage of the interest the centennial of the end of that war has generated. Published as Volume 25 in the New Brunswick Military Heritage Series, A Family of Brothers recounts the story of the 26th New Brunswick Battalion, an apt subject indeed.

The 26th was the first infantry battalion raised in the province and the only one of nine recruited there (one of them jointly with Prince Edward Island) to fight on the Western Front in France and Flanders.

The story of this unit has been told before, most recently in New Brunswick’s “Fighting 26th”: A History of the 26th New Brunswick Battalion, CEF, 1914-1919, published in 1994. Wilson’s approach is different from that of this regimental history, as he wanted to provide an in-depth examination of the soldiers who made up the battalion.

The result is a story “about how ordinary men, many of them young, unmarried, and living at home when they enlisted, found a place in history and experienced one of the greatest and most tragic events of modern times.”

It is an ambitious goal, as by the end of the war an astonishing 5,719 soldiers had served in the unit. This may explain why the book is considerably longer than most other volumes in the series.

In any case, this number is in keeping with other Canadian infantry battalions that fought on the Western Front, especially those that were part of the first two divisions to see combat: 1st and 2nd Canadian Infantry Divisions (the 26th served in 2nd Division).

Another major difference in Wilson’s approach to the story is his sources. In addition to standard primary and secondary documents, he relies heavily on letters, diaries and the few post-war memoirs written by soldiers who served in the battalion. Yet, as Wilson admits, “some important parts of the story are either missing or underreported, mainly because the records do not exist.”

Using a chronological format, Wilson takes the reader through the formation of the battalion in late fall of 1914, followed by a lengthy period of training in New Brunswick and Britain until mid-September 1915, when it deployed to the Western Front and fought there until the end of the war. A final chapter recounts a little-known facet of the war: the battalion’s time as part of the Allied occupation force in Germany, followed by a stint in Belgium and Britain until shipping was available to transport the unit home in May 1919.

Wilson also includes what he terms two thematic chapters outside the chronological timeframe, which focus on other topics not usually covered in standard battalion histories. This includes details of soldiers’ lives at the front, especially before and after battle, the experiences of casualties once they left the unit and an examination of the men who joined as reinforcements.

The accounts of the battles in which the soldiers of the 26th participated are particularly well told. This begins with the unit’s disastrous baptism of fire in October 1915 in an action the troops called the “Crater Fight”—which resulted in 21 killed and 31 wounded of the 50 plus who took part. This first taste of the harsh reality of combat also earned the battalion the nickname by which it was known for the rest of the war: “The Fighting 26th.”

The stories of other battles follow—names that still resonate with us today—the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70, Passchendaele and this country’s most glorious feat of arms ever: Canada’s Hundred Days, from Amiens on August 8, 1918 to the Armistice of November 11.

During its three years and a bit at the front, 900 soldiers from the battalion were killed and nearly 3,000 wounded. When the 26th returned home after the war, a mere 117 of the original 1,150 recruits that left Canada were still with it.

Wilson has produced a fast-paced, detailed narrative of a Canadian battalion at war. By including several first-hand accounts within the wider story, he has brought his chronicle to a very personal level, allowing the reader to connect with the soldiers in ways that many military histories do not.

Written By

John Boileau lives near Halifax and writes historical non-fiction, especially military history. He has written eleven books and more than 450 magazine and newspaper articles. His latest book is Old Enough to Fight, Canada’s Boy Soldiers in the First World War, co-authored with Dan Black.

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