Sometimes I trully can't see the forest for the trees

In writing my most recent book, Courage, Sacrifice and Betrayal - The Story of the Victoria Rifles in WWI the battalion's soldiers tell the story of the battalion through their own personal recollections and letters. I have been fortunate in being able to find some 86 personal recollections and letters from 20 different individuals ranging from privates to the Commanding Officer of the battalion. Ironically 42 of these letters have come from sources which should have been obvious to me but in reality came late in the research and writing process. One of these individuals was A. Y. Jackson, the Group of Seven painter who initially served as a private in the 60th Battalion until he was wounded in June 1916. It was only while I was polishing off my book proposal that I thought to seek out any letters that Jackson may have written about his experiences with the 60th Battalion. In conducting an initial web search I was fortunate to come across a piece written by Dr. Jonathon Scotland,  an historian with the Dictionary of Canadian Biography entitled "A Painter's Pen: A. Y. Jackson's & the Great War, 1914-1964" . Dr. Scotland was kind enough to share with me his copies of A. Y. Jackson's letters allowing me to discover nine letters which were relevant to my story. Jackson's letters clearly depict a man who although critical of the military strives to do his duty in a wold, in sharp contrast to his former life as an artist. Another rather late find was the discovery of 25 letters written by the Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Frederick de Long Gascoigne while in the trenches, to his younger brother Fred in Canada. Frederick's letters provide a unique perspective into the challenges, doubts and humanity of the top officer in the battalion both as he prepares his men for action and later as he struggles to prevent the breakup of the battalion.

One of the first casualties once the battalion was in Belgium was the Honourable Captain Alfred Thomas Shaughnessy son of Baron Shaughnessy, President of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Captain Shaughnessy was sadly killed by shrapnel on March 31, 1916.  Captain Shaughnessy's wife Sarah Polk Bradford, a descendent of the eleventh President of the United States was in London expecting their third child. It was only late in the writing process that I decided to research his family and discovered a series of letters exchanged between Sarah and Alfred which clearly expressed the great love and admiration that each held for the other.

In summary I would say that sometimes it is the most obvious connections to the past that we miss so don't do what I did which is nearly miss the forest for the trees. Retrace your research efforts and look for the obvious, it is just in front of you. Happy hunting!

But my relative did not serve with the 60th Battalion.....

In my research to find personal stories, letters and photos of soldiers who served with the 60th Battalion I contacted literally thousands of individuals. One common response from these individuals was "but my relative served with another battalion, you must have the wrong person." It was not an unreasonable initial response as many individuals were not aware that the majority of Canadian battalions did not fight as a unit in France and Belgium.

During WWI over 250 Battalions were raised to fight overseas. Although many of these battalions raised locally in Canada arrived intact in England, most did not actually serve as a complete fighting unit in France and Belgium. Only about fifty of the Canadian Battalions actually saw front line service with the balance used to provide reinforcement drafts for these front line battalions. Sometimes a reinforcement draft might be quite small while in other instances an entire company of 200 men might be shipped as a complete unit to reinforce a particular battalion.

In the case of the 60th Battalion, it received reinforcement drafts from over 30 different Battalions. As the 60th Battalion which had originally been raised in Montreal suffered significant casualties in 1916 and early 1917, it received reinforcement drafts from battalions raised primarily in Ontario and the Atlantic provinces. Among the largest contributors was the 75th Mississauga Battalion raised in Toronto providing 315 soldiers,  the 124th Governor General's Body Guard Battalion also raised in Toronto contributed an additional 160 soldiers and the 125th Overseas Battalion. raised in Brantford, Ontario provided a reinforcement draft of 101 soldiers.. The 123rd Royal Grenadiers Battalion also raised in Toronto provided 101 soldiers. 

Reinforcements for the 60th Battalion also came from the 55th Reserve Battalion comprised of men originally enlisting from New Brunswick and P.E.I. and the 40th Reserve Battalion with men enlisting in Nova Scotia. In total some 250 individuals from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and P.E.I. served with the 60th Battalion. All of these reinforcement drafts over time dramatically changed the composition of the Battalion in terms of regional representation but not the fighting efficiency and contribution of the 60th Battalion to the overall war effort.

60th Battalion - Victoria Rifles of Canada - Interesting Facts For The History Buff

  • 60th Battalion captured the Town of Vimy and Petit  Vimy as part of the Battle of Vimy Ridge
  • A.Y. Jackson the group of seven artist fought with the 60th Battalion and was wounded on June 3, 1916. He was commissioned as Canada's first war artist in WWI in 1917
  • 60th Battalion was only one of four front line battalions disbanded before war end due to politics
  • The youngest soldier at time of enlistment was fifteen year old Private John Stephen Stark (491119)  from London, Ontario
  • The oldest surviving member of the 60th Battalion was Sgt. John William Stocker at 102 years old
  • 2.812 soldiers served with the 60th Battalion overseas in WWI
  • By end April 1917 the Battalion has sustained 1,461 casualties including 303 making the supreme sacrifice while fighting in seven major actions
  • Of the 23 recipients of the Military Medal, nine were awarded posthumously
  • There was only one Commanding Officer of the 60th Battalion - Lt.-Col. Frederick De Long Gascoigne
  • The last original soldier from the 60th Battalion to be killed-in-action was Sgt. William Henry Brown (458508) on November 11, 1918
  • Of the men who would continue in the field after the breakup of the 60th Battalion, an additional 152 men would die before war end. 
  • The oldest soldier to enlist in the 60th Battalion was 53 year old Private Walter Hatfull, a bricklayer from Montreal
  • The youngest soldier to be killed in action was 17 year old Private Philip Gallant (445672) from Grandy New Brunswick
  • Today there are between 100-150,000 direct descendants of the 60th Battalion soldiers who served overseas
  • Over 60% of casualties were due directly to artillery
  • 60th Battalion reinforcement drafts came primarily from Ontario and the Atlantic provinces
  • Sergeant Edward Lewis Pyves (457596) was awarded the Military medal for his actions at Hill 60 on August 12, 1916
  • Over 50% of 60th Battalion soldiers were born in the U.K. with almost 40% born in Canada
  • 60th Battalion engagements included Sanctuary Wood and Hill 60 in the Ypres Salient, Zollern Graben and Regina trench in the Somme and Vimy, Petit Vimy and La Chaudiere at Vimy Ridge
  • Battalion was in existence for a total of 700 days including 452 days in the trenches

And I thought I was finished!

About five months ago, after researching and writing for over five years I thought I had finished my first draft for my new book - Victoria Rifles of Canada - 60th Overseas Battalion in WWI. By way of background, both my grandfather Edward Lewis Pyves (Military Medal) and my great uncle Stanley Pyves both served with the 60th in WWI, which was the prime motivation in writing the story of the 60th Battalion.

Writing about events which took place a hundred years ago is challenging, especially when the main participants are all long gone. I wanted to personalize the history of the 60th Battalion by adding stories, letters and pictures of the individual soldiers to bring the saga of the Battalion to life. Then, what now seems so obvious struck me - why not reach out to the living relatives of the 2,811 soldiers for assistance. Over the last four months using Ancestry.ca as a key resource,  I have sent out over 2,300 inquiries and as most genealogist's know, family historians are quite responsive and helpful. To-date I have had a response rate approaching 50% and have unearthed many photos as well as stories and letters relating to individual soldiers' experiences with the 60th Battalion during the war years.

Having the advantage of knowing for most of the soldiers their birth dates, place of birth and next of kin - information available from each soldiers attestation papers available at Library & Archive  Canada, I was able to use both the Public and Private family Trees posted on Ancestry.ca to complete my research. This research tool has made it possible to add the individual experiences, recollections and letters written some 100 years ago to my manuscript with the permission and co-operation of their direct descendants.  Over the next few months I will have completed a new draft of the Victoria Rifles of Canada which will be much richer due to the added content.