The Canadian Forestry Corps

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During the First World War, 619,636 Canadians enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and 424,000 shipped overseas. While the roles of soldiers at the Somme and Vimy Ridge are celebrated in Canadian history, there are many unsung heroes who may not have seen time on the front but served a vital role in the Allied victory.

Today, I am looking at the Canadian Forestry Corps.

Very few people today know about the Canadian Forestry Corps, and while they served during the Second World War as well, I am only focusing on the First World War version.

When the First World War began, and as it began to draw on and people realized it was not going to be a quick affair, the need for huge quantities of wood quickly became apparent. Trenches used huge amount of wood, including duckboards, shoring timbers, crates and more. With so many British men serving in the army in France, there was a shortage of people available and no one in the British Empire had more experience in harvesting timber than Canadians.

At first, the plan was to have Canadian troops harvest the forests of Canada, which held huge amount of timber, and then ship them overseas. The problem was that merchant ships only had so much space and rather than have timber take the room on those ships, it was decided that it was easier to bring the Canadians to Europe to harvest the timber of France and England. Another issue was the fact that U-Boats were patrolling the waters and there was the danger of a ship being sunk in the trip across the Atlantic Ocean.

On Feb. 16, 1916, British Colonial Secretary Andrew Law made a request to the Governor General of Canada to deploy lumber workers from Canada to cut and harvest timber. Millions of tons of lumber had moved across the Atlantic Ocean from Canada in 1915 but by 1916, the government was seeing it needed a new system. It was estimated that the first group of recruits needed to be 700 fellers, 450 sawyers and assistant sawyers and 250 carters and haulers.

On Feb. 25, 1916, Major General Alexander McDougall, who was from Renfrew, Ontario, was put in charge as the commanding officer of the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion. 

In April of 1916, the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion, consisting of 1,600 men, would arrive in England to begin work. In addition, $250,000 in machinery was purchased in Canada to be used in Europe.  On May 19, 1916, a request was sent to Ottawa for an additional 2,000 lumbermen, who would be assigned to cutting down trees in France. In June, the Canadian Minister of Militia proposed to raise two new Forestry Battalions, each of 1,000 men, which would be designated as the 238th and 242nd Forestry Battalions. In early November, the 230th Battalion was converted into a Forestry Battalion but the need for wood was still so pressing that a request for another 2,000 woodsmen was put forward.

On Nov. 14, 1916, the Canadian Forestry Corps would be formed officially. By the end of November, the War Office asked if the 199th and 156 Battalions might be made available to provide 2,000 men, while a further 5,000 men could be recruited from Canada, particularly from Quebec.

Major General Sir R.E. W. Turner, the General Officer Commanding Canadian Forces in Great Britain, put forward a request on Dec. 8, 1916, stating:

“Officers with the following technical qualifications will be permitted to transfer to the Canadian Forestry Corps. Actual experience in lumbering operations in its various branches, logging, manufacturing, shipping, grading, etc. also experience in the handling of men in construction work. Non-commissioned officers and men who have experience as mill hands, logging foreman, sawyers, fliers, saw hammerers, engineers, firemen and all other branches of the lumber trade, felling, transport, manufacturing and shipping of finished lumber.”

As soon as the Forestry Corps were formed, soldiers with timber harvesting experience suddenly found themselves diverted away from the front lines and put to work clearing down trees for use by troops they had previously been serving with. These new troops were given coniferous-tree cap badges that designated them part of the Forestry Corps and they were shipped to spots in France, England and Scotland to cut down trees, saw the wood and have it ready to be transported to the front.

The Forestry Corps headquarters were at Windsor Great Park, near to Windsor Castle and it was stated that one tree brought down by the soldiers was the William The Conqueror Oak, which was 38 feet in circumference and believed to have been 1,000 years old, dating to the time of William the Conqueror. King George V and Queen Mary would visit this detachment of the Forestry Corps on April 25, 1917 to see how the work was going in supplying timber for the front.

The Times newspaper would write an article on the Canadians at Windsor in an article on July 10, 1916 called Yeomen of the Axe, stating:

“The plantation, which forms part of the lands owned by the Crown and administered by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests, included a considerable area covered with spruce, fir, Scots pine and larch…The lumber camp is all Canadian, men, machinery and methods. The men, who are drawn from all parts of the Dominion, have the bronzed, healthy look and the easy, confident swing which we have learned to look for in Canadians. The khaki under their blue overalls proclaims them soldiers. They draw military pay and they know the rudiments of military drill, but first and last they are woodsmen with their craft at their fingertips.”

In December of 1916, the Forestry Battalions were broken up to form the independent forestry companies, roughly 102 in all.

On Feb. 2, 1917, independent forestry companies were formed

Over the course of the war, 35,000 Canadians served in the Forestry Corps in dozens of companies, with each company composed of hundreds of troops. Interestingly, a lot of the members of the Forestry Corps were actually underage workers. They had enlisted by lying about their age but were strongly suspected to be below the age of 19 and therefore not allowed to serve in combat.

One group attached to the Forestry Corps were the New Brunswick No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was a battalion made up of Black Canadians, who served in the Forestry Corps beginning in early May of 1917. They were assigned to locations in France and were commended for their discipline and faithful service as part of the Forestry Corps.

Forestry workers tended to be far away from the front lines but they were not free from danger, but some Forestry Corps units would be employed as labour units in the Canadian Corps on the front lines, constructing rail and road systems and helping to evacuate the wounded. Accidents could happen at the lumber camps as well. Incidents with power saws, machinery and even the transport of the wood could result in injuries. Each of the companies also had their own detention hospital, with six beds each. Sometimes the hard work itself would lead to casualties. Lt. C.W. Gamble of the Fifth Battalion Canadian Forestry Corps was listed as a casualty because of chronic rheumatism, which is severe inflammation of the joints, and he was sent to England to recover and then eventually back to Canada. Some individuals died, including Captain J.R.N. MacFarlane, although its not stated how he died.

Life in the Forestry Corps is described in the following letter from H.R. Summers-Gill. He had enlisted in Saskatoon on July 1, 1916 and shipped over to England to work with the Labour Corps. Before being transferred to the Forestry Corps. He says:

“I journeyed to Whittingham, a small village in Northumberland, where we were to erect our first mill. The timber to be cut was growing on a steep crag about 1.5 miles from the village and soon our wagons and lorries were cutting up the roads for miles around…we logged for over a year and on Dec. 21, 1917, moved 15 miles further north to Chillingham and began operations on another stretch of timber on the estate of Lord Tankerville, the owner of the world famous Wild Cattle herd. These animals were parked just a short distance from camp and I saw a good deal of them. From the description, I had heard of the cattle I expected to see something along buffalo lines, but they were smaller, in fact the cows are smaller than a decent Holstein, though they make up for their size by being very hostile to strangers, as one of our boys found out when he came to and the doctor was stitching up his ribs…Things went along nicely until the Armistice was signed when it was decided to demobilize the Forestry Corps and I can well remember the day, when on Nov. 20, our first draft for Canada left camp.”

Summers-Gill goes on to state that their unit produced six million feet of lumber using a 60 horsepower Canadian Waterous Mill and the average cut was 20,000 feet of lumber per day. The mill was moved four times and re-erected, along with the building railroads to ship the wood.

He goes on to say in his letter:

“Our average company strength was between 100 and 150 other ranks with four officers. It must be remembered that 60 per cent of these men were casualties from other units and therefore not in a fit condition to do a very hard day’s work and stand the weather as A1 men would have done. Though I personally doubt very much if men could have been found who have tackled the job with greater success.”

An example of casualties being assigned to the Forestry Division comes in the form of L.B. Lefroy, who was with the First Canadian Machine Gun Squadron in France and was wounded on May 24, 1915 at Festubert. He received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery in the field. In 1917, he was again injured when a shell explosion caused him to be buried, suffering severe leg injuries. After several months in the hospital, he was sent to Scotland to serve in the Canadian Forestry Corps.

Many of the forestry camps in France were not far from the front lines, as they needed to be available quickly to provide material at a particular point and portable mills were often used. In one cited transfer, a mill had finished with its last log at 9 p.m. and by 7 a.m. the next day the mill had been moved to a new grove of timber three miles away and was already up and running. The next day that camp produced 18,000 feet of board, and 23,000 feet of board the next day.

Jura Group, one Forestry Company, had the largest output of anyone during the war. In one 10 hour period, they produced 156,000 feet of board.

As the last 100 days of the way raged on and the push to gain land was moving at an accelerated pace, there were calls for troops from the Forestry Corps. In one request, 500 men were needed for infantry duty and records show nearly 1,300 volunteered.

The work of the Canadian Forestry Corps was highly appreciated in England. On April 12, 1918, The Right Honourable, The Earl of Derby, Secretary of State for War, wrote to Sir Edward Kemp stating:

“I am writing this letter to let you know on behalf of His Majesty’s Government how warmly they appreciate the splendid work done by the Canadian Forestry Corps in connection with the urgent demand which was received early in February last for some 40,000 tons of timber to be sent to the front. This was an unexpected demand and it was requested that delivery should be completed not later than the 31st of March. Shipment was commenced from the 10th February and the whole order was completed on the 20th March, 11 days ahead of the specified time.”

Sir Douglas Haig would send a dispatch commending the Forestry Corps on Dec. 25, 1917, stating

“By September 1917, the Army had become practically self-supporting as regards to timber, and during the active period of working, from May to October, over three-quarters of a million tons of timber were supplied for the use of the British Army. Included in this timber was material sufficient to construct over 350 miles of plank road and to provide sleepers for 1,500 miles of railway, besides great quantities of sawn timber for hutting and defences, and many thousand tons of round timber and fuel. The bulk of the fuel wood is being obtained from woods already devastated by artillery fire.”

The Americans were highly praiseful of the Canadian Forestry Corps as well, stating in various dispatches that:

“The Canadian Forestry Corps have repeatedly loaned equipment to the American Forestry Troops, and have extended invitations to them to join in all their sports and entertainment and have co-operated in the matter of policing nearby towns, and in every manner assisted to the fullest extent.”

Another dispatch would say:

“The American Forestry Troops are also indebted to the Canadian Forestry Corps for the use of their machine shops to make repairs to broken parts of the American mills, and for promptly furnishing lumber for building barracks on the arrival of the Americans at a time when it was most important that shelter be provided for the Troops.”

Canadian foresters did not just cut wood for the trenches. The Royal Air Force was indebted to the Canadian Forestry Corps not just for timber, but their skill in construction. Many aerodromes in the United Kingdom were built by Canadians, with some Corps working as much as 90 hours a week.

By the end of the First World War, it is estimated that 85,000 tonnes of round timber, 260 million board feet of lumber and over 200,000 tons of fuel and slabs were harvested by the Forestry Corps. At that point, it was estimated that the Canadian Forestry Corps was made up of 31,447 people, with the majority being Canadians. In France, there were 425 Canadian Forestry Corps officers and 11,702 other ranks, while 5,021 Prisoners of War in 13 companies were also part of the organization, and a further 1,100 individuals attached to the France companies. In the United Kingdom, there were 343 officers, 9,624 other ranks, along with 1,100 other individuals from England, Finland and Portugal attached to the companies, as well as 1,265 prisoners of war.

Newfoundland fought as its own entity during the First World War, but they also had a role in the harvesting of timber for the war effort. The Newfoundland Forestry Battalion was formed on April 2, 1917 and an appeal was put out on April 4, 1917, stating that Newfoundland Governor Sir Walter Davidson was calling for, “lumber men and all skilled workmen not eligible for the Regiment or the Royal Naval Reserve for service in the forests in the United Kingdom” In all, 500 men were recruited and the requirements to enlist in the Corps were more lax than for the regular army. The call for volunteers also stated that “no one shall be rejected for eyesight, flat feet, loss of fingers, deafness, etc.” There were more than 500 men accepted but 278 were rejected on medical grounds. As with the Canadian Forestry Corps, some members of the Newfoundland Forestry Battalion were teenagers too young to join the army, men who were medically unfit for regular service and woodsmen too old to serve in the reserves. Other than the two soldiers recruited in England, members of the battalion came from all over the island. A total of 167 came from St. John’s, while 129 came from the Twillingate District.  Those 500 men would clear 1,200 acres of timberland before the end of the war. The first 99 recruits would leave Newfoundland on May 19, 1917, with more troops coming at various intervals. The first group of woodsmen were sent to central Scotland where they had to move logs, some as big as 50 feet long, down steep terrain. They couldn’t build a railway in time so they built a 900-metre long chute that moved the longs from the top to a pond at the bottom quickly, and then the logs were floated to the sawmill. At the time, it was believed the chute was the longest in the world. By January 1919, after clearing 1,200 acres of wood, the Newfoundland Forestry soldiers were being sent home. Today, a statue of a Newfoundland forester is at the National War Memorial in downtown St. John’s.

By the time the Forestry Corps disbanded in 1920, it was estimated as much as 70 per cent of all the lumber that had been used by Allied forces had been harvested by the Canadian Forestry Corps.

Information comes from Forest Products Association of Canada, Canadian Soldiers, Newfoundland and Labrador In The First World War, Wikipedia, Sawdust Fusiliers, Canadian Black Battalion, the Medical Services, Letters From The Front, Five Strenuous Years, Strathconian, Report of the Ministry, McGill University At War, Nova Scotia’s Part In The Great War, The War and The Future,

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