By LCol David Burbridge and CWO Bruce Blanchard Canadian Military Engineers (CME) Branch Formation Europe
The Corps Forestiers Alliés en Aquitaine 1917-1919 (CFAA) has been working for the last five years to raise awareness of the rich history of the allied forestry corps and organize the installation of interpretive plaques at notable locations within the Gironde and Landes Departments of the Aquitaine region of France. These were the sites of Canadian, American, and British forestry operations.
With the cooperation and support of local communities, the CFAA’s goal is becoming a reality. The seven ceremonies in France made local headlines and included addresses by local and regional leaders, members of the CFAA, and heads of the military delegations supplied by Canada and the U.S. Canada’s three-member delegation, all members of the Canadian Military Engineers (CME) Branch, included LCol Lee Goodman, as well as LCol David Burbridge and CWO Bruce Blanchard, both from Formation Europe.
These commemorations were very well attended, and all French dignitaries and local attendees displayed a warm appreciation for the sacrifices of Allied soldiers and for the CFAA who have worked so tirelessly to preserve and honour their memory. The CFAA is made up of four French citizens -- David Devigne, Kévin Laussu, Jean Michel Mormone, and Christian Tauziède -- as well as a former CAF member, Al Gaudet, currently living in France. LCol Lee Goodman, Canadian Forces Fire Marshal in ADM(IE), had a front row seat in France this June as the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) were recognized for their unique contribution during World War One.
“I was asked to represent MGen Sylvain Sirois at the Canadian Forestry Corps ceremonies in June. He was invited as the Chief Military Engineer in the Canadian Armed Forces,” says LCol Goodman. “The ceremonies were very moving. They commemorated the achievements of the Allied forestry corps in the Aquitaine region of France during the Great War. Each of the seven ceremonies was hosted by a local municipality and highlighted their links to the history of the Allied forestry corps (which included Canada, the US and the UK). The ceremonies paid tribute to the Allied effort and recognized the sacrifices of the soldiers, some of whom died in France and are buried in Commonwealth War Graves.”
Nine additional plaques are also being unveiled in additional ceremonies – some of which just took place at the end of October, in several small towns in France. LCol Audrey Murphy, who works in DG Portfolio Requirements in ADM(IE), attended the ceremonies and said, “It was definitely a special experience. At one of the ceremonies, the town went all out, the town mayor went all out. It was pretty cute -- there was a band of about 50 kids playing music.”
Other ceremonies are envisioned for 2018. The plaques will all be situated on or adjacent to a vast network of biking trails connecting the communities, forming a route that has been called the “Lumberjack Trail 1917-1919” or “Chemins de mémoire des Bûcherons soldats”.
During the First World War, Allied operations required vast amounts of lumber to construct facilities, tunnels, trenches, bunkers, railways, bridges, corduroy roads, barbed wire stakes, crates for food, ammunition, as well as wood to provide heat in the winter. Initially, the war effort was heavily dependent on imported wood. However, by early 1916, Great Britain was experiencing significant lumber shortfalls. In February 1916, Britain made an urgent request to Canada for 1,500 men skilled in the various aspects of lumber production (fellers, haulers, sawyers).
Canada’s response was immediate. Within six weeks, 1,600 men were recruited across Canada and $250,000 of machinery was purchased. On 13 May 1916, lumberjacks of the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion near Windsor, England, first produced lumber overseas. The Canadian lumberjacks were quickly recognized for their immense skill and ongoing demands for expansion of Canadian lumber operations were constant. By the end of the war, the CFC had been formed and comprised 41 companies operating in Great Britain and 60 companies in France, totalling approximately 17,000 men. Including attached administrative, logistical, and medical personnel, and large numbers of prisoners of war for unskilled labour, CFC operations comprised approximately 33,000 people in total. Though operating far from the front lines, by the end of the war it had enormously contributed to the war effort and was supplying the majority of allied timber requirements, with American and British forces primarily supplying the remainder.
The CFC operated independently of the Royal Canadian Engineers within the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). However, the history of the CFC is of ongoing importance to the Canadian Military Engineer (CME) Branch owing both to the technical nature of their work, and that No. 2 Construction Battalion – the first and only unit of Black soldiers ever within the Canadian Armed Forces – was attached to the CFC shortly after its arrival overseas.
In the months following the war’s conclusion, the CFC was disbanded. While it was re-established during the Second World War it was disbanded once again after hostilities ended.
Despite the CFC’s critical contributions during the First World War, its historical importance remained relatively unknown to the public and underrepresented in academic research or books dedicated to Canadian military history. Consequently, much of the accomplishments and sacrifices of the CFC risked being forgotten were it not for the work of the CFAA.
In late August 2017, David Devigne, the unofficial leader of the CFAA who has been researching the CFC for almost 20 years, received notification from Rideau Hall that he will be awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (Civil Division) for his exemplary efforts toward preserving the history of the CFC and honouring the memory of its personnel.
LCol Goodman says, “Thanks to the efforts of the CFAA, the accomplishments of the CFC are being recognized and their history is being preserved for future generations.”