11 June 2015

Fighting 26th Battalion's departure for WWI remembered

New Brunswick Museum keeps memory of mass mobilization for First World War alive

CBC News

Saturday marks a century since 1,100 men from the 26th (New Brunswick) Battalion crammed aboard the Caledonia and set sail from Saint John for the battlefields of the First World War.

New Brunswick Museum history curator Gary Hughes said thousands lined Duke Street in Saint John to see the soldiers off to a war no one could comprehend.

"It was perhaps bittersweet in the sense that people were, I'm sure, waving and tearing when they went off, but I'm not sure they knew — and I'm not sure the soldiers knew — just what was awaiting them on the other side," said Hughes, who is holding an illustrated talk on the event Thursday evening at the museum at 7 p.m.

Advanced artillery, machine guns and chemical weapons awaited the 26th Battalion when it landed in Europe.

In 1915, when the battalion left, the kit they carried did not match up with what they would face, said Hughes.

"They went over with cloth caps on. The steel helmet only came out in 1916, due to so many head injuries as a result of shrapnel and machine gun fire," he said.

Once the men arrived on the battlefield, they earned the nickname 'The Fighting 26th' at places like Somme and Vimy Ridge in France, and Passchendaele, Belgium.

According to the Saint John Free Public Library, which published an electronic history of the battalion, when the band returned home in August 1917 there were only 44 original members remaining. Many had been killed and wounded, or transferred to other units.

Some artifacts from overseas connected to the 26th Battalion will be on display at Thursday's talk. Historian Brent Wilson will speak about a veteran's group formed after the war and its efforts to document and publicize the work of the Fighting 26th.