Remembering the Woodsmen

Canadian and French representatives
Unveiling ceremony
Graveside Comemmoration of War Dead
Publication Date: 
04 Dec 2017

By Cpl A. Watts (4 ESR) & Capt J. Bennett (4 ESR)

There are distinct nostalgic qualities rooted through decades of developed reputation that come to mind when one hears the title Lumberjack. A burly character with calloused hands, who keenly fulfills a full week of physical labour by Wednesday regardless of the conditions or circumstances. Unfortunately, with today’s progression of technology the trade of Lumberjack is slowly diminishing and currently does not exist within the Canadian Army. However, we owe it to our ancestors and predecessors to not let the memory and actions of our military lumberjacks fade along with the craft. Fortunately, characteristics resembling those in lumberjacks still exist today in a distinct group of CAF professionals: the Canadian Military Engineers (CME).

During the timeframe of 23-27 October 2017 the CME sent a four-person contingent (Col Cmdt BGen (Ret’d) Steve Irwin, LCol Audrey Murphy of ADM (IE), Capt Josh Bennett (4 ESR), and Cpl Antoine Watts (4 ESR)) to participate in events commemorating the Allied forestry efforts of WWI. Canada’s contribution to the Allied forestry effort during the Great War was no small feat. The Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC), part of the larger Canadian Expeditionary Force, transformed forests into the key strategic resource of lumber. At the height of our Nation’s contribution, there were 12 000 Canadians directly involved in creating lumber used on the front lines of battle. Lumber of all sorts was produced for a myriad of uses such as trench fortifications, corduroy roads, and railway ties just to name a few.

No existing unit within the CAF derives its lineage directly from the CFC. However, the CME is the Branch which closest resembles the units when considering the fact of our existing mandates. Furthermore, the fabricated lumber was used most frequently by the Allied Engineers. However, due to recent perpetuation decisions the history of a unique unit within the CFC is proudly being carried on.

Earlier this year 4 Engineer Support Regiment (4 ESR) from CFB Gagetown, NB was granted the honour of perpetuating the No. 2 Construction Bn. The No. 2 Construction Bn is a historically significant unit established during WWI. Not only did they meet the demands that were asked of them over-seas but faced their own battle at home. Racism was still prevalent during the early 1900s. Proudly, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, headquartered out of Pictou, NS, was Canada’s only black battalion and held the only black officer within the British military, Reverend William A. White. Based on geography, unit function and composition, and regional contribution, 4 ESR was the natural Regiment of choice to ensure the sacrifices and achievements of our predecessors are represented.

Along with presenting the No 2’s colours within 4 ESR’s lines and sending a Troop to parade during events in Pictou, NS earlier in July, the CME was invited to attend ceremonies in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region within France. The events were arranged by an amateur yet a highly dedicated group of historians named the Corps Forestiers Alliés en Aquitaine 1917-1919 (CFAA). Concurrently, the CFAA sought participation from the Canadian Embassy to France as well as consular and military representatives from the USA and UK. These multi-national and intimate events were aimed at unveiling cairns which will mark what will be known as the Lumberjack Trail. The Lumberjack Trail will be a series of cairns linked by extensive biking trails throughout communities where CFC operations occurred. The Lumberjack Trail runs through the Landes and Gironde departments in the south of France.

The efforts of the CFAA are momentous with respect to guarding and expanding the history of the CFC. The small group of five historians has been working, in some cases, for over 10 years conducting extensive research and sharing their findings with the Canadian Government. The Canadian contingent was welcomed by the group with ecstatic eagerness. Bonds were quickly formed between all members involved in the ceremonies. While all ceremonies were graciously hosted by the mayors of the respective towns, the contingent was very much accommodated by the CFAA. Events varied in size and composition. However, all included historical readings emphasized the importance of the Allied forestry contribution during WWI, and an act of remembrance. Visits to cemeteries housing Commonwealth graves produced profound emotions centred on sacrifice, having pride in our predecessors, our Military history, and our Nation’s contribution to the Great War. The emotions were a direct result of our proximity to the locations these sacrifices were made and sharing the ground that our ancestors operated.

Commemorative events allow soldiers of all ranks and experience the important opportunity to form or continue to build internal pride in the organizations we serve in. The contribution of Canada is apparent in the small European communities in which they operated. The displays of Canadian sacrifices is due in large part to the CFAA and the benediction of enabling representatives to attend commemorative ceremonies. These type of events plant a deep seed of pride in a small group. With the proper nurturing and care, this philosophical seed can be grown and spread throughout the Nation which creates support and gratification on a profound Strategic level.

This experience has been eye opening and has produced a new and powerful understanding of Canada’s contribution within the Allied forestry efforts of WWI. The history of the CFC, comprised of units with relentless individuals, and maybe none so determined as the No. 2 Construction Bn, will live on. Furthermore, with the tireless work of the CFAA, the available funding provided by the Engineer Branch, the French government, and the towns involved, this rich and important part of our history will flourish and be known for years to come.