The threat of a naval blockade of Britain led, in May 1940, to the establishment of a Forestry Corps whose role would be to provide all of the lumber that the British, and by extension Allied, military needed for any number of uses: buildings such barracks, mess halls, and headquarters; crates for everything from ammunition to food supplies; and even the wood used in gun stocks, ships and aircraft, and ammunition factories.
This new corps was certainly not without precedent; a similar force, comprising over 17,000 men, had served with great success in the First World War. And, just as she had in that earlier conflict, Britain turned to one of its most significant wood-producing dominions for the soldiers in the new Forestry Corps: Canada.
The call went out in the summer of 1940 and, as had been the case in 1917, recruiters to the Forestry Corps sought men with direct experience in the forestry trades: millwrights, sawyers and saw filers, scalers, canters, and loggers. Across the country, thousands of men volunteered, many of whom were veterans of the earlier Forestry Corps. In Creston, T. Rolfe may have been one of these: he enlisted in September 1940 with the Forestry Corps but later transferred to the Veterans Home Guard.
We know of fourteen local men, including Rolfe, who served with the Forestry Corps. Ten of them enlisted in September 1940 and served with the 18th Forestry Company: S Findler, C B Hamilton, E D MacDonald, J E McLaren, Oroville Riley, Sylvester Shaw, Harold Smith, L A Tooze, and Dolph and William Weir. 18th Forestry Company was one of twenty initially raised for service. Ten more were raised later on, and Jim Dodds, who enlisted in 1942, joined one of them.
In the First World War, most of the Forestry companies served in France, with only a few stationed in the United Kingdom. In World War II, however, the expulsion of Allied forced from the continent made that impossible: all thirty Forestry companies were stationed in Scotland. The very different military context resulted in another major difference. In the First World War, Forestry companies received virtually no military training beyond basic drill and military protocol. In the Second World War, due to the constant threat of invasion by Germany, they got six months of military training in Canada and spent part of their time overseas in training and preparing defensive positions in case of invasion.
The initial training took place at Valcartier, Quebec. With the possible exception of Sylvester Shaw, who was discharged in 1941 for medical reasons and may not have left Canada, the men who served with the 18th Forestry Company sailed for Scotland in early April, 1941. They landed near Glasgow and then took the train to their final destination: a forested area on the Lovat estate near the village of Kiltarlity, twelve miles west of Inverness in northern Scotland.
There, the 200 men of the 18th company constructed their barracks, set up their sawmill, and built bridges between the two. Once lumbering operations began, two crews worked steadily: one falling and skidding out the timber, and the other running the sawmill. Other members undertook the ancillary and support trades many of them had brought with them from civilian life: blacksmithing, mechanical work on machines and vehicles, cooking, and so on. Over the course of the war, Canadian Forestry companies cleared about 230,000 acres of Scottish forests, producing 394,467,161 FBM of lumber.
Although they were considered combat units, barring an invasion by Germany, there was little chance at first that any of the Forestry companies would see action. But, in the spring of 1943, Canada’s military services were falling short of men, and the build-up to the planned D-Day landings increased the pressure even more. Several hundred soldiers were transferred from the Forestry Corps to front-line battalions. John Edwards was one of these. He had actually begun his service in a combat unit, enlisting in 1940 with the Duke of Connaught’s Own, then transferring to the Forestry Corps once he arrived in the United Kingdom. Later, he transferred to the Engineers and served as a sapper in France, Netherlands, and Germany. Harold Smith may have been another; we have a brief reference that he served in “England, Holland, Belgium, France, and Italy,” though we have no further details.
The D-Day landings led to another reorganisation of the Forestry companies. Ten companies had been sent back to Canada to undertake forestry tasks there; ten others stayed in Scotland; and the remaining ten – Companies No. 1, 5, 9, 14, 15, 16, 25, 27, 28, 30 – formed a total of 131 huge rafts of timber and followed the invasion fleet to France.
Like all military units, the Forestry Corps personnel underwent frequent changes, being transferred from one unit to another as the need arose. The ten companies that ultimately went to France were composed of men chosen specifically for the job according to the skills needed and the age and physical suitability of the Foresters. Unfortunately, details about the service careers of the Creston Valley men are sparse. We have no record of any of them being amongst the Foresters sent to France, but it is possible. 30 Company, for example, was comprised largely of men from British Columbia
On the continent, the Foresters cut timber for bridges, corduroy roads, and telephone poles and sawed lumber for endless building projects. They followed the advancing army through the Reichswald and Hochwald Forests, cutting timber all the way – much of which was splintered and full of shrapnel. Six companies were in the Ardennes forest in mid-December 1944 when the Germans launched a counteroffensive. The Foresters scrambled to take up defensive positions and then made a hasty withdrawal, reaching Brussels safely with a fair bit of their equipment but abandoning twenty-one sawmills. All ten companies eventually found themselves in Germany.
As far as we know, all the Forestry recruits returned home safely, with one exception: Lieutenant James Robert Hughes died of injuries on 3 December 1944.
Creston Museum exhibit Lumberjack Soldiers: Creston’s Forestry Battalion explores the role of the Creston Valley in the Forestry Corps of the First World War