Canadian Forestry Corps Personnel felling a tree. Source: LAC PA-004003

Exploiting Old World Forests with New World Forestry: The Canadian Forestry Corps in the First World War

Canadian Forestry Corps Personnel felling a tree. Source: LAC PA-004003

by Michael O’Hagan

We have in the past paid too little attention to Forestry. You have come to teach us one part of the work, the cutting down of the timber. The bringing down of our trees we left very often in this country to the action only of the winds and the storms.

-British Prime Minister Lloyd George[1]

"Exploitation par les Canadiens." Canadian Forestry Corps Mill. Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022980

“Exploitation par les Canadiens.” Canadian Forestry Corps Mill. Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-022980

In a war characterized by barbed wire, machine guns, artillery, and tanks, it may come as a surprise that one of the most basic resources required in the First World War was wood. Whether shoring up trench systems, supporting millions of miles of barbed wire, or providing soldiers with a solid walking surface, trench warfare depended on a constant source of lumber. While British forests had a long tradition of supplying timber to support British naval power, by 1914 only ten per cent of Britain’s timber was home-grown and only four per cent of British land was forested.[2] The remainder of Britain’s timber supply was imported from North American or Northern Europe but the war would make clear the dangers of foreign timber.

By 1916, the British Government found itself at the verge of a crisis; the British forestry industry was plagued by a labour shortage while timber imports were severely curtailed as emphasis was placed on shipping munitions, food, and other essential goods. Coming to the realization that Canadian forestry methods were better suited to the required production than anything that British foresters could offer, in February 1916 the Colonial Secretary asked the Governor General of Canada for a “Battalion of Lumbermen,” to help “exploit the forests of

Recruiting Poster for 238th Canadian Forestry Battalion. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-844

Recruiting Poster for 238th Canadian Forestry Battalion. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-28-844

Britain.”[3] Within six weeks, the Canadian Department of Militia and Defence had raised 1,600 men for what would become the Canadian Forestry Corps.

Directing its recruitment campaigns specifically at Canadian lumbermen, the Canadian Forestry Corps brought with them civilian equipment and expertise.[4] The men of the Canadian Forestry Corps quickly established themselves in English, Scottish, and French forests and, as one war diarist noted, “it was not long until the tall larches re-echoed the sound of axes and saws.”[5] Employing the same methods and techniques that they had employed in Canada, the foresters exploited the forests in the interests of the war effort. Working primarily in private forests, they cut, trimmed, skidded, and then hauled to camp the logs which were then run through a mill. The men of the Canadian Forestry Corps had brought with them Canadian-made mills which were much preferred over their Scottish-made counterparts due to their superior reliability and production.

The experience of the Canadian foresters and the effectiveness of their equipment brought praise upon the Canadian Forestry Corps for its role in the war effort. Their production rates were staggering; in the immediate pre-war period, Britain imported 11,500,000 tons of timber each year and by November 1918, the Canadian Forestry Corps in Britain and France was producing the same amount solely for the war effort.[6] In all, Canadian foresters produced seventy per cent of the timber used by the Western Allies.[7]

Canadian Forestry Corps Personnel Loading Timber Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003399

Canadian Forestry Corps Personnel Loading Timber Source: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-003399

This work did not go unheeded, as exemplified by Sir Brampfylde Fuller, a director of timber supplies for the War Office, who stated in May 1917 that “the Canadians ‘are, of course, as timber-getters, infinitely more efficient than any other agency which is at this country’s disposal.’”[8] This sentiment was echoed by Prime Minister Lloyd George, who highlighted the importance of transplanting Canadian forestry practices to Britain: “I have seen something of this work of timber-cutting that is being done, and I can assure you that you are doing a work of very great national importance. You bring to us from Canada a skill in this work that we here have almost lost.”[9]

The work, however, came at a high cost: British forests suffered dramatically at the hands of the Canadians. In the quest for timber, seventeen million tons, amounting to approximately 450,000 acres or half of Britain’s productive forests, were harvested in England, Scotland, and Wales from 1916 to 1918.[10] This devastation would usher in a new age of British forestry, establishing a national forestry initiative to both restore British forests and ensure that Britain would not find itself facing another wood shortage in times of war.  However, in just over twenty years, the men of the Canadian Forestry Corps were once again at work exploiting Britain’s forests.



[1] “Historical War Diary of No 110 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps, Aviemore, Scotland,” War diaries – No. 55 District, Canadian Forestry Corps, Reel T-10902, Volume 5019, Series III-D-3, RG 9, Library and Archives Canada.

[2] Joshua West, “Forests and National Security: British and American Forestry Policy in the Wake of World War I,” Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr. 2003), 272; Sylvie Nail, Forest Policies and Social Change in England, Springer: 2008, 54.

[3] Report of the Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 363; Bird and Davies, 5; David W. Loe, A Nation in Making – Volume 1: The Organization and Administration of Canada’s Military in World War One, Ottawa, ON: Service Publications, 2012, 165.

[4] Report of the Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, London: OMFC, 1918, 364.

[5] Historical Record, 117th Company, C.F.C., no date, War diaries – No. 51 District, Canadian Forestry Corps, Reel T-10901-10902, Volume 5018, Series III-D-3, RG 9, Library and Archives Canada.

[6] Canada in the Great World War – Volume V: The Triumph of the Allies, Toronto, ON: United Publishers of Canada Limited, 1920, 302.

[7] James Miller, The Foresters: The Story of Scotland’s Forests, Edinburgh, UK: Birlinn Limited, 2009, 37.

[8] C.W. Bird and Lieutenant J.B. Davies, The Canadian Forestry Corps: Its Inception, Development and Achievements, London, UK: H.M. Stationery Office, 1919, 12.

[9] “Historical War Diary of No 110 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps, Aviemore, Scotland,” War diaries – No. 55 District, Canadian Forestry Corps, Reel T-10902, Volume 5019, Series III-D-3, RG 9, Library and Archives Canada.

[10] West, 275.

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Michael is a PhD student in History at the University of Western Ontario.

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