Shoring up the Supply Lines: The CFC in the First World War

by | Sep 8, 2020 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Cameron Bartlett

This article is part of the Canadian Military History Colloquium Web Series, created to provide an online space for papers which otherwise would have been presented at the 31st Canadian Military History Colloquium, if not for this year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Cameron Bartlett is a recent graduate of the University of Calgary and currently works as an independent historian and researcher in Halifax. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in history from Mount Allison University and a Master’s degree in Canadian History from the University of Calgary. His primary field of research is Canadian Military History with a specialization in the operations of Canadian Forestry Corps between 1916 and 1919. Cameron has also conducted research on the service of Indigenous peoples, Afro-Canadians and Ukrainian immigrants in the Canadian Army during the First World War.

During the Canadian Forestry Corps’ (CFC) first seven months of operations from May 1916 to January 1917, it had operated solely in Great Britain, providing sawn defence timber for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and for the various industries on the Home Front. However, in September 1916, a series of meetings were held in France between officers of the French War Ministry, the BEF and the CFC to discuss the potential deployment of several companies of the CFC to France. Negotiations progressed swiftly, and by mid-September an agreement had been made that saw Canadian foresters deployed to support both the BEF and French Armies in five different regions in France.

The first companies began arriving in Le Havre in November 1916, while the remainder slowly followed over the next four months as operations started behind British lines. The companies were divided into two different groups that were officially designated No. 9 and No. 10 Districts, although they were often referred to jointly as the Army Area Group. Operations also began in the Jura Mountains, where No. 5 and No. 6 Districts formed the Jura Group. No. 2 and No. 1 formed the Central Group in Normandy, and lastly No. 4 and No. 12 Districts formed the Bordeaux Group near the Spanish border.[i]

In the interest of space, most of this paper will focus on the efforts of the Army Area Group because of their direct involvement in three of Canada’s most important battles – Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele. The evidence I have found in official records and reviewed in secondary sources indicates that the Canadian Forestry Corps was an indispensable asset to the Canadian Expeditionary Corps (CEF) in each of these battles. Without the direct involvement of the CFC in each of these battles, the CEF would likely have struggled to achieve their tactical successes in 1917.

Vimy Ridge

In early 1917, the CEF was tasked by the British with the capture of Vimy Ridge as part of the Entente’s joint spring offensive, but it was not an easy task. Having occupied the ridge for three years, the Germans had turned it into a fortress consisting of several strong trench lines, concrete pillboxes and entrenched artillery positions that had previously stymied attempts by the British and French to retake it. Therefore, General Julian Byng, the Officer Commanding the CEF, began putting together a battle plan that he hoped would smash the German Defences while keeping Canadian causalities to a minimum.[ii]

In order to accomplish his ambitious plan, Byng had to draw upon the collective strength of the entire CEF, including the Forestry Corps, as well as the Canadian Railway Troops, Pioneer battalions and Labour battalions. It was two months before the operational start date when the first CFC company – No. 25 Company – was deployed to the village of Blavincourt on February 13th, 1917 and was followed by No. 27 Company near Toutencourt on March 3rd and No. 26 Company again near Blavincourt on March 4th. Their primary mission was to provide the aforementioned support units with the necessary timber to build all the required infrastructure necessary to support the infantry battalions during the attack.[iii]

“Canadian Forestry Corps at work (making railway sleepers for France with a Canadian mill), 1918,” Library and Archives Canada, PA-022678.

First of all, Byng’s plan required the construction of supply lines, complete with supply depots, rail heads, roads and light railways, to bring forward the CEF’s daily requirement of 2,500 tons of supplies to the forward supply depots. While there were already roads and railheads near the Vimy Front, Byng ordered that these be expanded in order to increase the flow of supplies and accommodate the additional manpower, as well as the CEF’s considerable artillery park. Timber was not necessary for road construction, but it was needed when the dirt roads turned into muddy rivers during heavy rainfall because timber road slabs were used to build corduroy roads for the horses and trucks to drive over. In the lead up to the battle, the CFC in France was sawing roughly 30 km of road weekly from March until the end of April in order to meet the demands of the CEF, BEF and French.

Railways were dependent on large quantities of timber sleepers and timber construction material. A one-mile (1.6 km) section of standard gauge track (standard gauge being the width between a train’s wheels; 4’8 in this case) required 2,000 timber sleepers, while several tons of timber were also needed to complete the trackside infrastructure that included water towers, coaling stations, signal boxes and loading stations. Narrow gauge sleepers were also needed for the light railways that the Canadians operated at Vimy. While it is difficult to determine production numbers for sleepers for the spring of 1917, the Central Group sawed 70,000 standard gauge and 180,000 narrow gauge sleepers – a total of roughly 16,000 tons of sleepers in September 1917.

Communications were another important piece in Byng’s plan; the Signal Corps had to account for 105.6 km of above ground telephone and telegraph wires spread out over a 60 square km area. While the existing network was adequate, several more kilometers of wires had to be added in order to attach all the new positions that the Canadians had occupied since their arrival. This required telegraph poles, of which there were several different classes. For example, a B class pole had a minimum length of 14 feet and a maximum of 22 feet, while an A class pole had to be a minimum of 22 feet and a maximum of 34 feet. Supplying the different classes of  poles was no easy feat, yet the CFC still delivered 7,500 A class and 12,000 B class poles to the British and Canadians during the month of April.

“Soldiers of No. 2 Battalion washing their clothes, September 1916,” Library and Archives Canada, PA-000667.

Housing and trench maintenance were also important requirements. There were 170,000 soldiers in total stationed at Vimy. Soldiers needed accommodations, especially the infantry, who had to endure the horrors of the front lines where men often slept in crowded foul-smelling bunkers or in the ubiquitous funk holes carved out of the wide of the trenches. This was no easy task for several reasons; the first being the wet weather, especially during the spring and summer, that routinely left the trenches and other shelters flooded, meaning there was a near constant need to replace rotten, waterlogged timbers. Thanks to the efficiency of the Forestry Corps, there was never a shortage of construction timber. Each sawmill produced 25,000 to 50,000 Foot Broad Measured (FBM) of timber per day. This meant that on an average 75,000 to 150,000 FBM of timber reached the front lines each day.[iv]

The Forestry Corps also provided invaluable aid to tunneling companies that operated at Vimy Ridge. The tunneling companies had to excavate a vast network of tunnels underneath the Canadians front lines. The “Subways,” as they were known, were in some places large enough to accommodate several hundred men, who lived underground for short periods of time prior to the battle. The mining and engineering companies even dug out rooms that were used as ammunition stores, as headquarters and first aid posts and, most importantly, as concealed jumping off points for the infantry. The Forestry Corps’ contribution to the construction of the Subways was providing large numbers of pit props, 100,000 of which were ordered by the Director of Light Railways in January 1917. Hundreds of thousands of pit props were needed for the construction of underground shelters at Vimy and for the construction of mines to blow apart German lines. It would have been impossible to build the underground tunnels at Vimy without a steady supply of pit props, because of the significant risk of collapse during an artillery bombardment.[v]

Hill 70

With the conclusion of the battle on April 15/16th, the Canadian Corps began to redeploy towards the city of Lens, where it engaged in one of the often-overlooked battles of the Great War, the Battle of Hill 70. Overlooking Lens, Hill 70 was another imposing geographic feature – though not so dramatic as the ridge at Vimy. Just as they had done at Vimy, the Germans had turned this section of their front line into a warren of hardened bunkers and concealed strong points built out of the ruins of Lens, which defences included large slag heaps from the local factories and coal mines. This presented a problem for General Arthur Currie, the CEF’s newly appointed commander, who quickly realized that the only way the Canadians would crack the German ring around Lens was to bring an overwhelming amount of artillery to bear against the Germans.

Unfortunately for General Currie, the battle could not have taken place at a worse time because the BEF’s transport section had issued orders to take half of  the Motorized Transport fleet out of service for much needed maintenance work. This order applied to the CEF as well, so just before the battle was to begin, Currie suddenly found himself with only half  the number of trucks he needed for his plan to work. However, upon arriving at Hill 70, the Canadians were lucky enough to inherit from the British a well-developed light railway system that proved instrumental in the coming battle.

“Men of the Canadian Forestry Corps, February 1919,” Library and Archives Canada, PA-004002.

The light railway at Lens, like so many other light railways along the Western Front, had first been built at point to point connections, linking supply dumps with forward batteries. As the war dragged on, they were also used to transport infantry, move all manner of supplies, and transport the wounded to field hospitals. However, as their popularity rose, the British had to begin manufacturing railway equipment because there was no more stock left over from the French mines, from which the track and cars had first been looted in 1914. This was another reason why the French and British had negotiated the deployment of the CFC to France in 1917. They needed to supply the BEF with light and standard gauge railway sleepers because, by 1917, the British – under the supervision of the Railroad Operation Division (ROD) – was operating an extensive railway network separate from the French National Railway (SNCF).

By the time the Canadians took over operation of the Lens network, the British had extended the system to a total of 50 km. The Canadians quickly took advantage of the complex network to move the majority of their supplies from the forward railheads to the supply depots and to the forward artillery batteries. The light rail was so efficient that General Currie estimated that “A single day’s narrow-gauge traffic…relieved 2,640 men, 3,074 horses, 26 GS [General Service] limbered wagons, 495 GS wagons and 291 motor trucks for other duties.”[vi] This was crucial because, once McNaughton’s bombardment plan came down (anticipating 1000 tons of shells fired daily over four weeks), it was apparent that without the light railway and the support of the CFC the attack could not have gone ahead in light of the limited availability of motorized transport that summer.

In order to meet the demand for railway sleepers during the late spring and early summer of 1917, Lt Col. J.B. White ordered O.C. Jura Group Col. Johnson to prioritize the production of 60cm (narrow gauge) sleepers over every other item in his group. White’s order also directed that the sleepers should be sawed in such a manner that, if demand fell, those sleepers that had already been shipped could be easily sawed and used as road slabs or trench walls instead.[vii] The battle to capture Hill 70 did not succeed in the end since McNaughton’s artillery was unable to dig out the Germans, who managed to hold on long enough to exhaust the Canadians. The battle did prove, however, how important light railways were to conducting operations on the Western Front and, by extension, how important the Forestry Corps operations were to supporting operations at the front. However, it was during the battle of Passchendaele that the Forestry Corps firmly cemented its reputation for exceptional service.

Passchendaele

The Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, began in late July 1917 and was the last attempt by the BEF to break out of the salient surrounding the ruins of Ypres. Having spent the last three years locked in a bloody and seemingly unending stalemate with the Germans, the British planned to break through to Passchendaele Ridge, thus seizing the high ground from the Germans and depriving them of the advantage they had held over the British since November 1914. However, on the morning of July 27th, when the offensive began, it began to pour rain, and did not stop for weeks on end. The sudden deluge quickly turned the already sodden Flanders countryside into one giant sea of mud. It was so thick that men could not walk through it, meaning neither reinforcements nor supplies could be moved forward to relieve those soldiers trapped at the front. The only practical solution was to construct a network of duckboards – timber planks used to line the bottom of mud filled trenches – that eventually spread out across the battlefield like some kind of post-apocalyptic spider’s web. The walkways stretched for kilometers across No-Mans-Land and were the only means of transport of men and supplies. This is where the Forestry Corps proved its worth as it responded to the calls of the Fifth Army by ordering that each company in France run two 10 hour shifts each day, in order to maintain a near 24-hour work cycle from September onwards.

Using the Central Group as an example, it produced a total of 5.6 million FBM during the month of September, accounting for 2% of the total FBM it cut during the entire war. Production and allotment records for the Central Group indicate that, from September onwards, forest planking (used in the construction of duckboards), 2 ½ inch road slabs and railways sleepers (60cm, standard and meter gauges) were to be prioritized above all else. Additionally, during the height of the battle in September, the Central Group produced a total of 59,000 road slabs, 13,500 forest planks, 82,000 60cm sleepers and 79,500 standard French sleepers. The Central Group also produced 3,980,000 pieces of sawn defence timber, 840,000 pieces of forest planking, 120,000 standard gauge sleepers and 280,000 60cm sleepers.[viii] The increases in production clearly show that, during the worst periods of the Third Battle of Ypres – especially September and November, the British relied heavily on the CFC to supply desperately needed timber products to their armies.[ix]

“Indigenous Forester, 1917,” Library and Archives Canada, PA-005424.

While timber planks were desperately needed to build duckboards, planking was also needed to construct timber platforms for the artillery guns, which often floundered in the mud because of their weight. With the mud reaching a meter deep in some places, the guns often sank up to their axles and proved almost impossible to dig out; nor could they be pulled out by horses because the horses became stuck and often had to be put down to spare them from further suffering. According to Nick Lloyd, “It was found that a raft of 3-inch planks spiked to sleepers and supported on piles driven deep into the earth worked as well as could be expected, although when no wood was available, batteries had to make do with laying down a bed of sandbags, covered with a sheet of corrugated iron.”[x] Although this provided the relief the gunners needed, the mud still impeded the movement of the guns – unless they were moved along the 560 kilometers of plank roads that were built at Passchendaele.

In appreciation for the CFC’s service, Brig. Gen. Lord Lovat, the British military’s Director of Forestry, sent a personal letter of thanks to O.C. Central Group Lt. Col. C.H.L. Jones. The letter stated: “I wish to put on record my appreciation of the services rendered by the Central Canadian Group by their output of timber last month [September], which amounted to no less than 32, 278 tons. This record of production reflects the greatest credit on the organizing power of Col. Jones and his Group and District Headquarters and is a standing testimony to the hard work put in by Officers and men of the Canadian Forestry [Corps] Companies and the Transport Services. The “fighting material” shipped forward at a most critical time, and fully half the timber produced by the Group in September is now in the battle area [Flanders]. The successes won this month [October] have, on account of the adverse weather conditions, greatly depended on the facilities for rapid movement of personnel, guns and ammunition afforded by wood roads and railways. The Central Canadian Group with 23, 149 tons of sawn lumber produced can justly claim their full share of the credit.”[xi]

Field Marshal Sir Dougal Haig also passed along his personal thanks to the CFC and all other Imperial forestry units. The Field Marshal’s dispatch read as follows:

“In the Spring of 1917 the activities of the Army were extended by the formation of a Forestry Directorate, controlling Royal Engineer and Canadian Forestry [Corps] Companies, to work certain forest areas in France and provide material for the use of our [armies] and the French Armies. By September 1917, the [British] Army had become practically self-supporting as far as regards timber, and during the active period of working from May to October, over three quarters of a million tons of timber were supplied for [use by] the British Army. Included in this timber was material sufficient to construct over 350 miles of plank roads and to provide sleepers for 1,500 miles of railway beside great quantities of sawn timber for hutting and defences and many thousands of tons of round timber fascines and fuel. The bulk of the fuelwood is being obtained from woods already devastated by artillery fire. These Forestry and Quarry Units have proved of great value and have been the source of very considerable economy. My special thanks are due to the French Forestry Authorities as well as to the Comite Inter-Allie des Bois de Guerre, for their assistance in our negotiations regarding the acquisition of woods and forest areas. ”[xii]

While it is clear that the Canadian Forestry Corps had a considerable impact on military operations on the Western Front, the CFC also made an important contribution to operations of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on the Home Front during the summer of 1917.

The CFC and RFC had previously cooperated in the summer of 1916, when the CFC constructed a series of airfields that allowed the RFC to intercept incoming German Zeppelins before they reached London, which subsequently led to the temporary cessation of Zeppelin raids on London. However, in the spring of 1917, the Germans had deployed Gotha Bombers against London. These aircraft presented an even greater threat than the Zeppelins. While the RFC did have a network of aerodromes from which they could intercept the incoming raids, there were shortages of experienced pilots owing to the heavy losses of “Bloody April” that had seen 207 aircrew killed and 245 planes shot down.

The RFC once again turned to the Canadian Forestry Corps for assistance in aerodrome construction because “the labour market had been effectively drained by the enlistments of the preceding months of [the] war, and such labour as there was available for Aerodrome construction work was of a very inferior caliber and entirely unfitted for rushing the heavy surface work required for preparing the land for [use by] Aircraft”.[xiii] The RFC quickly negotiated a deal with the CFC for “several working parties” – Nos. 123 and 124 Companies – to begin work on aerodrome construction in June/July 1917 under the command of Lt Col. Featherstonehaugh. The foresters received high praise from the RFC because, in comparison to the available civilian and army labour, the foresters proved they were the superior choice for the job at hand. No. 123 Company commanded by Major Head began work at Andover in the County of Hampshire, while No. 124 Company commanded by Major J.J. Bull began work in July 1917. Two additional companies – Nos. 142 and 143 – were mobilized from Sunningdale in August at the urgent request of the RFC; they wanted the CFC to mobilize additional labour because the first two companies had completed their work so rapidly.[xiv] With four hundred foresters working on aerodrome construction by September 1917, McDougall created No. 56 District to oversee the operations of those four companies for the remainder of the war.[xv]

One such aerodrome constructed and expanded by the Canadian Forestry Corps was Stow Maries. Situated along the Thames Estuary, Stow Maries had been built in 1916 as a base for a home defence squadron. Although work on the airfield did not commence until August 30th, 1918, the work undertaken by the Canadian foresters is representative of the work carried out between July 1917 and November 1918. The work mostly consisted of expanding the existing runway and laying drainage pipes because the area was likely prone to flooding due to its proximity to the Thames Estuary. Work was also done on parts of the runway to lengthen it and shore up some areas that may have been damaged by local flooding. The work required 63 days and 422 hours to complete at a cost of 672 British Pounds and was finished one day after the Armistice was signed on November 12th, 1918.[16] By the time operations ceased in March 1919, the foresters of No. 56 District had constructed or improved 110 aerodromes throughout Britain. This should be considered a significant achievement because there were only 435 foresters employed in aerodrome construction during the 20 months of operations. On average, each working party consisted of about forty men per site so it is quite remarkable that so few men were able to accomplish so much. It should also be noted that several of the aerodromes constructed by the Canadian Forestry Corps during the Great War continued to be used during the Second World War, including RAF Biggin Hill.

Conclusion

In conclusion, 1917 was the pivotal year during which the Canadian Forestry Corps proved its worth. Expanding from roughly 8,000 soldiers in January to almost 22,000 by December, the CFC almost tripled in size as demand rose for its services across France and Britain. Driven by the increased scale and frequency of Entente offensives, the Canadian Forestry Corps diligently worked night and day – often for weeks on end – to fill requests for timber. While much of the credit for the successes in 1917 must go to the soldiers who fought the battles, credit must be given to the soldiers of the CFC. Without their ceaseless efforts, most of the preparation work prior to each of those battles would not have been possible. Without the CFC, General Byng would never have been able to supply the CEF with the 2,500 tons of daily supplies it needed at Vimy Ridge; nor would McNaughton’s bombardment plan have been possible without light railways carrying the lion’s share of shells at Vimy and later at Hill 70. The construction of the “Subways” and other structures vital to the outcome of the battle would not have been possible either, had not the CFC been shipping timber to the front lines. The same can be said of Passchendaele, where the timber duckboards and planking made the difference between a soldier’s life and death.

Although the soldiers of the Canadian Forestry Corps have yet to receive their rightful recognition in the history of Canada’s contribution to the Great War, it is my hope that, through my work and the work of others, the significant contributions made by the 24,000 soldiers who served under General McDougall will receive more attention and honour.


[i] C.W. Bird and J.B. Davies, The Canadian Forestry Corps: Its Inception, Development and Achievements (His Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1919).

[ii] Tim Cook, Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918 (Toronto, Penguin Group, 2008).

[iii] Bird and Davies, The Canadian Forestry Corps.

[iv] It should be noted that each shipment was a mixture of timber materials.

[v] G.W.L. Nicholson, Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919 (Ottawa, Department of National Defence, Directorate of Heritage, 1962).

[vi] Douglas E. Durflinger and Serge Marc Delaney, Hill 70: Canada’s Forgotten Battle of the First World War (Vancouver, UBC Press, 2016), pg. 149

[vii] Production records/sawing instructions, H.Q. Jura Group, March 1917, RG 9 III C 8 Vol. 4517 HQ Jura Group France File 45, Canadian Forestry Corps records, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[viii] Production record Central Group CFC, September 1917, RG 9, III C 8 Vol. 4504 HQ Central Group France File 31, Canadian Forestry Corps records, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[ix] All sawn defence timber was to be at least 3 feet in length, and 1-3 inches thick.

[x] Lloyd, Passchendaele, pg. 279.

[xi] Production record Central Group CFC, September 1917, RG 9, III C 8 Vol. 4504 HQ Central Group France File 31, Canadian Forestry Corps records, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[xii] War Diary HQ Jura Group, September 1917, RG 9 III D 3 Vol. 5016 File 751, HQ Jura Group CFC, Canadian Forestry Corps records, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[xiii] Report on the work of the Personnel of the Canadian Forestry Corps on the preparation of land in Great Britain for new aerodromes, March 1919, RG 9 III C 8 Vol. 4527 No. 56 District, East Sheen, Airfield Construction, File 13 Canadian Forestry Corps Archives, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[xiv] The District record for fastest job competition was 20 days, which record was set by a party of 40 men in Feb/Mar 1918 when they completed 4,400 cubic yards of excavation and fill, 13,840 yards of grading and three acres of steam rolling, in addition to erecting several hutments.

[xv] War Diary July 1917-March 1919, No. 56 District, RG 9 III D 3 Vol. 5019 File No. 766, Canadian Forestry Corps Archives, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

[xvi] Two machine shops were established by the Corps for No. 56 District – one in Grantham and one at Reading – so that the Corps could manufacture and repair all the equipment used by the Aerodrome construction companies.