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Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Canadian Forestry Corps

On February 16, 1916, Andrew Bonar Law, the British Colonial Secretary, formally asked the Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, if the British colony "would assist in the production of timber for war purposes" by providing the manpower necessary to cut and process timber in England. 

Several factors led to this unusual request.  Britain had traditionally obtained its timber by water from North America, Russia and Scandinavia.  During the war, these shipping routes were under constant threat of attack from German U-boats.  In addition, there was a critical need for cargo space to transport more valuable supplies, such as food and ammunition, to England and France.  Timber was available overseas, but there was a shortage of "skilled labourers, fellers, haulers and sawyers" to harvest and process the resource. 

Timber was in great demand at the front lines.  Lumber was needed to bolster trench walls ("revetting"), line the muddy trench floors ("duck boards"), and provide stakes for barbed wire.  Railway ties and lumber for constructing corduroy roads over muddy terrain were also in demand.  Other lumber was used to construct shelters for troops, aircraft hangars and military buildings.  

By March 1, 1916, the Canadian government responded to the Colonial Secretary's request by creating the 224th Battalion, dedicated specifically to harvesting and processing timber resources overseas.  An additional three battalions - 230th, 238th and 242nd - would be organized and recruited over the next fifteen months. 

The British government initially asked for a contingent of 1000 men.  An additional 2000 men were requested in May, and another 2000 in November 1916.  By the end of the year, 11 companies of Canadian lumbermen were working in Britain, and 3 other companies had crossed the English Channel to work in France.  In total, 3038 Canadian lumbermen were serving overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

On March 17, 1916, the Canadian government authorized the creation of a Nova Scotia forestry contingent consisting of 525 men.  The "Nova Scotia Forestry Draft" was  organized into three companies, covering various parts of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.   "A" Company was recruited from Cape Breton, Victoria, Inverness and Pictou Counties, while  "B" Company was recruited from Prince Edward Island, Halifax, Cumberland and Colchester Counties.  These two companies initially mobilized at Truro.  "C" Company, recruited from Shelburne, Queens, Lunenburg, Yarmouth and Digby Counties, mobilized at Yarmouth.

Royal Engineers use duck boards to carry telephone wire to the front lines, October 1917
In late May, the three Nova Scotia companies proceeded to Aldershot for final preparations.  On July 4, 1916, the first Nova Scotian forestry recruits embarked for England on board the White Star transport Justicia.  Within a month, these recruits were divided amongst the other forestry units operating in England, Scotland and France.

The Forestry Corps established its English headquarters at Smith's Lawn, Sunningdale, Berkshire, in the midst of Windsor Great Park.  This 20 square kilometre area of forested land was traditionally the private hunting grounds of the Royal Family, whose rural home, Windsor Castle, was located nearby.  Amongst the trees the Forestry Corps claims to have felled in the Park was the "William the Conqueror Oak",  38 feet in circumference and large enough to be 1000 years old.  As no saw was capable of cutting it from the outside, Canadian lumbermen dug a hole into the trunk large enough to allow one man to pull the saw from inside the tree!

The Canadian lumbermen brought machinery and equipment with them, to save time and money setting up sawmills to process the harvested timber.  One company of men built portable "Armstrong huts" to house the men in their camps.  By the end of the war, the Canadian Forestry Corps had produced almost 260 million board feet of lumber, 85 000 tones of round timber, and over 200 000 tons of fuel and slabs from English and Scottish forests.  Before departing for home, the men constructed a log cabin near Windsor Castle as a memorial to their wartime efforts.

Click here to view a gallery of photos of the Canadian Forestry Corps at work in England.
The first Forestry Corps members crossed the English Channel in September 1916 and began harvesting timber in the Normandy region of France.  By November 1917, 58 companies were supplying lumber to British and French troops from various locations in France.  Production was divided into four groups:  a) the "Armies Area" immediately behind the British and French front lines; b) the Jura Group southeast of Paris, near the Swiss border; c) the Central Group south and west of Paris, including Normandy; and d) the Bordeaux Group in the southwest corner of France, along the shores of the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border.  A large amount of lumber work took place immediately behind the British front lines.  The Forestry Corps produced over 550 million board feet of lumber, almost 225 000 tons of round timber, and over 600 000 tons of fuel and slab wood in France during its two years of operation there.

Due to their proximity to the front, Forestry Corps members in the "Armies Area" often came under enemy fire.  On at least one occasion, the 37th Forestry Company had to quickly abandon its mill, burying the valuable components to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  Units in the Marne region, near Eclaron, came under constant threat of attack from air raids and artillery shell fire.  Other units worked timber left behind by retreating German units, placing them in locations close to combat.

On at least one occasion, Forestry Corps members were called to arms at the front.  In March 1918, German forces launched a major offensive in what proved to be a final attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front.  When military commanders requested that the Corps provide 500 men for combat, almost 1300 volunteered for infantry duty.  By the time the German offensive had been successfully halted the following month, a significant number of Corps members had served in some capacity on the front lines.

By November 1918, the Canadian Forestry Corps consisted of 6 battalions containing 101 companies, mostly deployed in Scotland and the Jura and Normandy regions of France.  A total of 24 000 men had served in the Corps by war's end, half of whom were located in France.  It is estimated that Canadian lumbermen produced 70 % of all lumber used by Allied forces on the Western Front, a vital contribution to their successful war effort.

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Click here to watch a 7-minute film of the Canadian Forestry Corps at work overseas, courtesy of the National Film Board.

Sources:

Hunt, M. S..  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War.  Halifax: Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co., 1920.  Available online.

The Canadian Forestry Corps.  Images of a Forgotten War: Images of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War.  National Film Board of Canada.

World War I: The Canadian Forestry Corps.  The 20th Engineers homepage.

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