Canadian Forestry Corps
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05 min 30 s
War Office Cinema Committee
This clip shows member of the Canadian Forestry Corps at work. The initial shot of two men notching a tree trunk is followed by images of men working in pairs, sawing and felling a tree, and then cross-cutting it into lengths. This is followed by images of three men manipulating a freshly cut but still standing tree, clearing it of surrounding trees to allow it to fall. We see shots of logs being loaded onto a wagon and then unloaded at a sawmill. The following segment shows a sawmill in operation, as the logs are cut into lumber with a radial saw. The clip concludes with images of railway ties exiting the mill by conveyor belt and being loaded onto a truck for transport.
The Western Front demanded massive amounts of lumber. It was used to bolster trench walls with “revetting” and to line their floors with “duck boards.” It was also used for railway ties, for building corduroy roads over muddy terrain, and for constructing troop shelters, aircraft hangars and other buildings. Canadians would play a key role in meeting this huge demand.
Prior to the war, Britain imported most of its lumber from North America, Russia and Scandinavia, but with the outbreak of hostilities, shipping lines became vulnerable to u-boat attacks, and cargo space was needed for more vital goods like food and ammunition. It became necessary to harvest British and French forests, but expert timbermen were in short supply. In 1916 Britain made an urgent request for Canadian skilled labour. Canada responded quickly, recruiting 1,600 men and forming the 224th Forestry Battalion. By May 1916, these men were at work producing lumber in Britain.
As the demand grew, the original battalion expanded to become the Canadian Forestry Corps, containing six battalions and 101 companies, deployed mostly in Scotland and in the Jura and Normandy regions of France. By the time the war ended, the Corps had about 24,000 men, with about 12,000 serving in France. The forestry operations also employed outside British workers and prisoners-of-war. In France, Chinese workers would contribute to the effort, while Finnish and Portuguese men played a part in the British-based operation. The Canadian Forestry Corps produced about 70% of all lumber used on the Western Front.
The Canadian Forestry Corps also contributed to building airfields for the Royal Flying Corps, and nine companies from the Corps would help construct over 100 such sites in France and Britain.
Pieces of History
Engineers on the Western Front
Historian, Department of National Defence
The Western Front made huge demands in matériel, lumber being an excellent example. Wood was needed to revet trenches, support the roofs of dugouts, for plank or corduroy roads, and as sleepers for tramways and railways. These tasks became the responsibility of the military engineers, specialized forestry units being formed for the purpose. Lumberjacks, graders and other skilled men from within the lumber industry were recruited. They cut timber and ran their own sawmills to provide a finished product.
The first forestry companies in the war were formed in 1915, in France. More units were created in England to harvest the island’s local resources. All of these were gathered into a corps in 1916 that eventually comprised 43 companies, and was of such a scale as to require its own hospital system. The men received more than the normal food rations, considering the fact that they were engaged in continuous hard labour.
Their work, in Britain and France, saved huge amounts in shipping costs, not to mention freeing up lumber supplies for such industrial endeavours as shoring up mines and building trawlers and other vessels. Nor did the forestry corps limit its work to cutting and preparing wood. Many of its units supported the Royal Air Force by clearing, draining, levelling and grading sites for aerodromes. By the time of the Armistice 11,750 men worked within its ranks, with another 6000 attached in various capacities.
Closer to the fighting there was a need for heavy-capacity means of transport to get the prodigious amounts of ammunition, food, water and other necessary matériel to the front line. One solution to such an intimidating logistical problem was the construction of tramways with specialized labour, with other specialists maintaining and operating the tractors and rolling stock. The result was a system of transport similar to that of a large North American city run by the Canadian Railway Troops. The troops worked on the Western Front and also in Palestine, the 1st Bridging Company serving there in the last part of the war. The system was, in fact, a merging of two networks, tramways closer to the front operating with gasoline-powered tractors while light railways a little farther behind used steam power, the whole being linked to France’s broad gauge system, which had been built in the decades before the conflict.
In the end, the war became too mobile for railway troops to keep up, and when an Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the railways were some 30 kilometres behind the forward troops, in spite of the work of 25,000 railway construction engineers, two-thirds of them Canadian. Still, they had served their purpose in the almost four years of near-static warfare that characterized the Western Front from late 1914 to the summer of 1918.
It became clear in the early months of the First World War that operations above ground were distinctly hazardous, even suicidal, hence the trenches and dugouts in which soldiers took shelter. An obvious course was to begin operating underground, and within the Canadian Corps three specialized tunnelling companies were formed. Recruited in the main among miners and clay-kickers (the latter dug smaller tunnels to run gas and water mains under city streets), they began their work in 1915, and their role was multi-faceted. First, they used the galleries they excavated under enemy lines to listen in on his own work, the aim being to give fair warning if he began to threaten Canadian lines underground. Second, they might pack the galleries with explosives to destroy enemy defences; generally, however, such operations proved disappointing as German forces usually occupied the crater thus created before Canadian or British troops could reach it.
Tunnelling was particularly hazardous. Working underground can release toxic gas capable of disabling or killing, or one could find oneself tunnelling into an enemy gallery, leading to vicious little skirmishes fought with knives and digging tools. When fighting shifted from a mutual siege to more open warfare in 1918, tunnellers applied their skills to other work, disarming booby traps in dugouts and other underground facilities as the Allies advanced towards the German border. In fact, the only Canadian military engineer ever to be awarded the Victoria Cross was Captain C.N. Mitchell, a tunneller who in 1918 removed explosives from a bridge while under attack.
The most versatile of the engineers operated on the front line. Originally organized in field companies of a hundred men or so, in 1918 they were reorganized into larger battalions and even brigades. Regardless of how they were administered, their tasks were widely varied. Just behind the front line they were responsible for building and maintaining roads, as well as providing water for humans and animals, the latter task requiring some of them at least to possess knowledge of how to locate and test the precious liquid. To give just two examples, part of the preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge included laying over 40 miles (65 km) of four-inch (10 cm) pipe, with five pumping stations and a total storage capacity of 560,000 gallons. Following the successful advance at Amiens in August 1918, one of the deepest penetrations achieved on the Western Front, the Canadian Corps and its allies found itself in the midst of a plain scorched dry by the summer sun, but engineers needed only two days to locate sufficient water to keep forward troops satiated.
In the front lines proper, sappers, as they were called, dug trenches, or oversaw this work done by the infantry work parties, and prepared defensive positions with the copious use of barbed wire. On occasion, as for a trench raid, for example, they were called upon to destroy such wire, using long cylinders filled with explosive called ammonal tubes or bangalore torpedoes. When that front line advanced, as in 1918, bridging became a most crucial sapper task, as forward movement could not be maintained without ammunition, water, food, and the other necessities of making war, all of which needed to be transported forward on roads or railways, both of which needed bridges to get across rivers and other, similar obstacles. Small structures made of cork sufficed to get the infantry across, while prefabricated materials called Inglis bridges carried heavier loads.
At the time of the Armistice what could be called field engineers (as opposed to railway and forestry troops) could count 14,285 men within their ranks, with responsibilities only somewhat less diverse than their numbers.
Kerry, A.J. and W.A. McDill. The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers, Volume I (1749-1939). Ottawa : Military Engineers Association of Canada, 1962.
Chaplin-Thomas, Charmion, Vic Johnson and Bill Rawling. Ubique! : Canadian Military Engineers : A Century of Service. Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing House, 2003.