April 20, 1997

A Regular Army of Volunteers
by Scott Gibbons

Volunteers at the 26th Field Regiment Museum are part historians, part preservationists and part sleuths.

On any Tuesday during the winter at the museum's cramped quarters at the Brandon Armoury, one of the 10 volunteers will be immersed in a mystery.

In a recent case, a Saskatchewan man was looking for information on his grandfather. Armed with only a name, the volunteers tracked down what battalion he belonged to, where he fought and were able to pinpoint within 100 yards of where the man was killed on the battlefield.

"Once we get the scent, it's hard to give it up," says volunteer Ross Neale. "We spend hours and hours and hours digging up information."

As Neale gives a guided tour of the museum, which officially opened last weekend in its new location at the armoury, he points out another successfully solved mystery.

All that was known of a photograph taken in 1915 of a group of soldiers was that the subjects were members of the 79th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Going by the rank on the jackets' sleeves and referring to other photographs, the volunteers were able to identify everyone in the picture.

"It was a lot of hard work but we got it all done," Neale says. "I'm really proud of this one."

But not all cases wrap up successfully. And as time passes, it becomes more difficult to find clues, Neale says.

Above the 79th Battalion is a 1906 photograph of the 12th Manitoba Dragoons taken on the front steps of Brandon's old city hall.

The identity of only one man is known. However, the museum's volunteers haven't given up. Every time a photograph from that era turns up, volunteers will take down the 1906 picture to see if they can identify anyone.

"After 90 years, it's getting pretty difficult," Neale says.

Although the volunteers have access to excellent reference material to assist people researching their grandfather's or great-grandfather's war history, sometimes a name isn't enough. More clues, such as a regimental number, are necessary, Neale says.

"If someone comes in and says the grandfather's name is John Smith, it just prolongs the agony," he says.

Until recently, the museum was located on the third floor of the armoury. It is now housed on the main floor. One reason it was moved was because veterans and visitors were finding it increasingly difficult to access.

The museum, which opened in 1979, is a tribute to veterans from Brandon and western Manitoba and contains many artifacts from the 12th Manitoba Dragoons and the 26th Field Regiment.

Two big guns flank the entrance to the museum. One is a nine-pounder used in the Northwest Rebellion. The other is a 105 mm German field gun that saw action in the First World War.

The museum's walls and shelves are covered with hundreds of photographs, medals and weapons.

One of the prized exhibits is a display of badges. Every single regiment and battery that was a part of the Canadian army in 1945 is represented  by their badge.

"You won't see another one," Neale says of the exhibit donated by former Brandonite Wilf Falconer. "It is fantastic to have something like this."

Referring to the heavy wool Second World War battle dress that belonged to Gunner R.D. Davies, Neale says "You ate in it, slept in it, died in it and got married in it.

"Sometimes uniforms could stand at attention because they were so dirty. And socks could've walked all the way to Berlin themselves."

Although the museum's space is limited, it welcomes, preserves and tries to display every donation. If not, Neale says, artifacts will eventually get lost or destroyed and there won't be a legacy for future generations.

"I think we all realize it has to be protected in some way," he says. "Throwing it into a shoe box and hiding it under a bed will end up destroying it. You can't do that."

~ One of a Kind ~
Ross Neale shows the 26th Field Regiment Museum's
prized exhibit in which every regiment and battery
that was a part of the Canadian army in 1945
is represented by their badge.

~ Battle Dress ~
Volunteer Ed Master adjusts a uniform
worn year-round by soldiers in the Second World War.

~ Photographs and Memories ~
Ann Pickford and Bill Pierson
work on identifying some of the photos in the collection



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