On November 11th, Canadians will pay tribute to the men and women who have served our country during times of conflict and honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice — in order for all of us to enjoy the freedoms we have today.
What many people may not be aware of is the story of the Canadian Forestry Corps, which made a significant contribution to Allied efforts during the First and Second World Wars — but one which is often overlooked.
The Forestry Corps was created during the First World War when it was discovered that huge quantities of wood were needed on the Western Front. The forest products industry was a dominating economic force in Canada’s early history and the British Government quickly discovered there was nobody more experienced or qualified to harvest timber than Canadians. In 1916, British Colonial Secretary, Andrew Bonar Law, made a request of the Governor General of Canada to deploy Canadian lumbermen to aid in the cutting and processing of timber. Later that year, the Canadian Forestry Corps was created.
At the time, Canada shipped processed timber across the Atlantic to Britain. However, due to the high risk of travelling overseas from German U-boats, it was deemed safer to bring the manpower to work in the forests of Britain and continental Europe.
Approximately 24,000 men served as part of the Forestry Corps in various parts of Europe, producing lumber for barracks, trenches, bridges and railway beds – to build crates for food and ammunition – and sadly, to construct coffins.
By the end of the war, the Corps had produced approximately 85,000 tonnes of round timber, 260 million board feet of lumber, and over 200,000 tons of fuel and slabs.
Besides producing lumber, the Corps was also trained as infantry and occasionally served on the front lines to assist in the quick construction of rail and road systems in the wake of attacking troops. On one occasion, when a request was made for 500 men to join infantry duty, records show that almost 1300 volunteered. By the time the offensive had been halted, a large number of Corps members had served in some capacity on the front lines.
When the Corps was disbanded in 1920 at the end of the war, it is estimated they were responsible for 70% of all lumber that had been used by Allied forces.
In 1940, the Canadian Forestry Corps was re-established in response to the start of WWII to play the same role. Once again, thousands of volunteers came forward, many of them veterans of the First World War. Thirty companies were drawn from all regions of Canada, including Quebec. Altogether about 7,000 men were deployed to Scotland.
As we mark Remembrance Day, let’s pause and honour the many contributions and the ultimate sacrifice made by so many – and have touched the lives of all Canadians, regardless of age, gender, race, sexual orientation, or social class.
The Canadian Forestry Corps was made up of men who went from the back bushes of rural Canada to the front lines of war – and to all of them and their families and loved ones, we owe a debt of gratitude.