In the midst of the First World War, the British government needed lumbermen to cut down trees to help supply the fighting force on the front lines in France and Belgium. On the battlefields, troops needed wood to construct trenches, dug-outs and roads, to make railway sleepers, huts, planking, posts and ammunition boxes, as well as for fuel.
But the government faced two problems. Firstly, few skilled people were left in the UK to harvest the country’s ancient forests. Secondly, the growing threat of German U-boats in the Atlantic was preventing imported Canadian timber getting through, particularly as space needed to be freed up on transatlantic ships to import crucial munition and food supplies.
So ‘Sawdust Fusiliers’ were summoned from the Canadian Forestry Corp: a battalion of 1,600 men were recruited from Canada in 1916 to harvest ancient forests to supply the Western Front (pictured below).
To remember these events, a life-size wooden carving has been commissioned by ‘Devon Remembers’, a partnership project co-ordinated by Devon County Council. Sculptor Andrew Frost has depicted two members of the Canadian Forestry Corps with one of the horses they relied on to work the forest. It’s situated at Stover School beside the Stover Heritage Trail and was unveiled by Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Ridgway, representing HM Lord-Lieutenant of Devon.
When the ‘Sawdust Fusiliers’ arrived at Stover in 1916, local people were very curious about the Canadians. So fetes and sports days were held, where the visitors demonstrated their skills in logging, baseball, canoeing and First Nations’ ceremonies.
By October 1917, when they left, the 250 foresters and sawyers had felled 700 acres of the estate, producing over 650,000 cubic feet of timber for the battlefields, where it was used in trenches, dug-outs and roads and to make railway sleepers, huts, planking, posts and ammunition boxes as well as for fuel.
After the initial draft, the timber supply department identified several other locations in Devon, and in June 1917 new camps were built at Mamhead and Starcross, supported by satellite camps at Chudleigh, Ashcombe, and Kenton.
A smaller site was opened at Torrington in early December 1917, with camps at Chulmleigh, Brookland and Bratton Fleming, and operations at Plymbridge near Plymouth started in January 1918.
After the war, Stover’s woodland slowly recovered, helped by land girls from nearby Seale-Hayne Agricultural College who planted thousands of saplings.
The government established the Forestry Commission in 1919 to coordinate a national strategy of reforestation, land management and woodland security to manage Britain’s timber supply in the future.
An accompanying information board, provided by the South West Heritage Trust’s Devon Remembers Heritage Project, was also unveiled by Cllr Caroline Chugg, chairman of Devon County Council.
She’s accepted an oak chair on behalf of the people of Devon, carved by the ‘Sawdust Fusiliers’ during their posting and first presented to Stover House in 1919. The chair was made by officers of the No.104 Company of the Canadian Forestry Corps from English Oak from Stover’s forests.
After the war, it was taken to Kenya, before being purchased at auction in 1968 by Canadian husband and wife team Don and Geneva King, who immediately recognised its roots in England and significance to Canada. It is now being returned by Sergeant Charles King of the Royal Canadian Regiment as a gift to Devon to be kept at Stover Country Park.
The inscription on its back says it was presented by the Canadian soldiers to Mrs. Harold St. Maur as a mark of appreciation. At the time, the St. Maurs owned Stover Park. Cllr Chugg, says: “As part of the centenary commemorations we are honouring the links forged by Devon, particularly by the Stover Estate, with the Canadian Forestry Corp, some of whom stayed after the war ended to marry and begin families here.
“This magnificent wooden carving is a fitting tribute to the vital role of the Sawdust Fusiliers, honouring the effort and expertise of these men and horses throughout the war and reminding everyone of the important part they played.”