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Saturday, 25 February 2012

Pte. James Leo McDonald - A Canadian Forestry Corps Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: October 29, 1893

Place of Birth: Auld's Cove, NS

Mother's Name: Catherine (O'Brien) McDonald

Father's Name: John Neil ("Little Neil") McDonald

Date of Enlistment: May 25, 1917 at Truro, NS

Regimental Number: 2330384

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force

Regiment: Canadian Forestry Corps

Name of Units: No. 3 Nova Scotia Forestry Corps; No. 57 Company

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Lumberman

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Responding to the call to support Canada's war effort did not always involve carrying a weapon.  Thousands of Canadians at home and overseas undertook a variety of tasks essential to supporting soldiers in the front trenches.  Such was the case with James Leo McDonald, whose skills with an axe and saw were central to his overseas war experience.

Jimmy was born on October 29, 1893, the ninth child of John Neil and Catherine (O'Brien) McDonald.  He spent his childhood at Auld's Cove, Antigonish County in a household of seven boys and four girls.  Given the nickname "Jimmy Pure" to distinguish him from the many "James McDonalds" in the area, Jimmy began his working career as a lumberman in the forests of northeastern Nova Scotia.

In early 1916, the Canadian government created the Canadian Forestry Corps to assist the Allied war effort in France and Belgium.  As many "Bluenosers" earned a living in the forests, military officials set out to recruit a Nova Scotia Forestry Corps in the spring of 1917.  Jimmy was among those who answered the call, enlisting in the No. 3 Nova Scotia Forestry Company at Truro on May 25, 1917 and pledging to serve for the duration of the war plus six months.  Like many single recruits, he assigned $ 20 of his monthly salary to his mother.  [Forestry Corps members earned the same pay as regular enlisted soldier overseas - $ 1.10 a day.]  Exactly one month after he enlisted, Jimmy departed Halifax aboard the SS Justicia, arriving in Liverpool, England on July 4.

Pte. James Leo McDonald - Kentville, NS, June 9, 1917
Jimmy began his overseas assignment at CFC headquarters in Sunningdale, Smith's Lawn Berkshire, in the midst of the large forest surrounding Windsor Castle.  After their arrival in England, Nova Scotia Forestry Corps members were redistributed amongst various existing companies in England and France.  As a result, on July 27, Jimmy was transferred to # 57 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps, one of two companies assigned to the Jura region of France.  The following day, # 57 and # 58 Companies disembarked at Havre, France and began the overland journey to their work area.  At 4:15 pm August 15, 1917, the two Companies arrived at CFC Jura District headquarters.
The Jura region of France is a mountainous, forested area close to the eastern border with Switzerland.  The CFC first arrived there in January 1917, attracted by abundant timber resources.  An early Jura District war diary entry contains the following description:

"The forests of the Jura are composed almost entirely of balsam fir with a small proportion of spruce.  The trees are large and of good proportions, ranging in size up to six feet on the stump.  The average of trees marked for cutting being about fifty years.  It may be added that these forests are the property of the State and that even under present conditions the trees to be cut are carefully selected and marked by the State Foresters… the policy of conservation… being followed…."

Map of Operations - No. 5 District, Jura Group, July 1917 (No. 57 Coy. replaced No. 40 Coy. in La Fresse Forest on Nov 1., 1917)
Conditions in the region posed several challenges, the first being access to water.  By September 1918, six saw mills would be operating in the Jura District, supported by eleven CFC Companies and four work companies.  Not only was water required for human consumption; the mills relied on steam-powered engines for operation.   The District war diary entry of June 22, 1917 describes the components of the mill operated by 70th Company CFC: a Twin Robey 120 horsepower engine, two 44-horsepower and one 25-horsepower boiler. 

Unfortunately, the region's geological structure consisted of fractured limestone formations, creating rapid surface water drainage.  As a result, no immediate water sources existed on the forested slopes.  A small stream located near the village of Supt was therefore developed as a water source.  CFC workers then constructed an elaborate pipe system to deliver the precious commodity to work sites on the mountainous slopes at elevations as high as 525 feet. 

Transportation was the other major issue, once again described in the District war diary: "The roads are narrow and hilly, and although the gradients are in no case excessive, are unsuited for motor transport; as a result, horses must be employed in bringing logs to the mills, though motor transport is in use to its maximum in conveying the finished product from the mills to the [nearby] railway."  Heavy rainfall combined with increased traffic made constant maintenance and repair of the existing roads necessary. 

The solution was construction of two light railroads.  The first, a 24" gauge line, crossed the valley from Vers-en-Montagne to the La Fresse Forest, a distance of 6500 feet (almost two kilometres).  Powered by a small locomotive, it was used to move logs to saw mills located in the valley.  A second line, 4000 feet long (1.2 kilometres), was built up the mountain slope at La Fresse and was powered by a cable hoist at the top of the hill.  Both structures were constructed and maintained by the CFC, with the assistance of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

CFC Jura regional headquarters was located in the village of La Joux.  For administrative purposes, the region was divided into two districts - #5 and # 6.  # 57 Company, consisting of 4 officers, 164 "other ranks" and 75 horses,  was assigned to # 5 District.   After spending their first few weeks establishing a camp, the Company assumed the task of harvesting logs in the nearby forests.  Lumbering operations were carried out six days a week, weather conditions permitting.  Saw mills operated on the same schedule, with men working ten-hour work days producing squared and trimmed lumber.  On several occasions, men voluntarily worked on Sunday, to clear a large stockpile of logs..

Pte. James Leo McDonald (left) and unidentified soldier
Jimmy's company enjoyed fine weather for the first two months after their arrival.  Signs of the impending winter appeared when the region received its first snowfall of the year - a total of six inches - on the night of October 12.  Two days later - Sunday, October 14 - all ranks were confined to camp until 3:30 pm "for the purpose of building and repairing huts, stables, etc., and making their quarters comfortable for the coming winter".  By the end of the month, the company's war diary recorded heavy snowfall and cold temperatures as winter settled into the mountainous region.

Work in the forests and mills continued despite the change in seasons.  On November 1, # 57 Company - 120 men and all horses - assumed the quarters of # 40 Company in the La Fresse Forest near La Joux, where they would harvest logs from the steep hillside throughout the winter.  The presence of horses indicates that much of the labor was done manually, although the cable and small gauge railways no doubt assisted in transporting the harvested logs to mills located in the valley below.  

Even though they were working thousands of kilometres away, the men of the CFC maintained connections to home.  On November 24, Jimmy and his comrades received 50 francs to purchase of Christmas presents to be sent to family and loved ones in Canada.   The men also voted in the controversial wartime federal election held on December 5.  Polling booths were established on each Company's grounds and "enthusiasm… [was] shown by All Ranks."  A relief fund was also created on behalf of relatives of "sufferers in the recent catastrophe which occurred at Halifax", a reference to the devastating December 6, 1917 explosion.  A District bakery was established at La Joux to provide bread for all companies, and the men observed Christmas Day 1917 with the same routine followed on Sundays - compulsory church parades for Roman Catholics and Protestants, church service, and a welcome day of rest from the strenuous work in the forests and mills.

Pte. James Leo McDonald's camp in France ("x" marks his cabin - location unidentified)
While no statistics were kept on the number of logs harvested by each Company, CFC officers compiled monthly records of milled lumber production.  In January 1918, for example, No. 5 District mills  produced 6,989,284 million board feet of lumber, exceeding the previous record of 5,178,923 achieved in November 1917.  The war diary commented that the new record was set "under trying climatic conditions in the shortest days of the year", indicating that the arrival of winter had not disrupted production in any way.

Work continued through the winter months, with the occasional interruption due to inclement weather.  January 1918 began with "fine and cool" weather and "everybody  working as usual".  While heavy snowfall on January 11 brought most transportation to a halt, work resumed without disruption until snow storms on February 23 and 25 once again disrupted operations.  By early March, temperatures increased and snowfall was replaced by rain.  Overall, the conditions were not much different from the typical winters that Jimmy would have experienced in northeastern Nova Scotia.

The "other ranks" of the CFC were a "spirited" lot, as one might expect from a group of men engaged in rigorous physical labor far from home.  The District war diary records a variety of offences that warranted military courts martial - men absent without leave (AWOL), incidents of drunkenness, insolent behaviour, disobedience of orders, and damage to the local inhabitants' property.  On January 23, 1918, for example, one of Jimmy's # 57 Company comrades was sentenced to 90 days' imprisonment for "unlawfully wounding" two other members.  On May 9, another # 57 Company comrade was sentenced to one year imprisonment for being AWOL, resisting the escort sent to apprehend him, and drunkenness.  Such incidents were typical in all companies operating in the Jura district.

Pte. James Leo McDonald
The spring of 1918 passed without significant incident for Jimmy and his fellow lumbermen. The May 6th diary entry observed that # 57 Company was working at Vers-en-Montagne alongside # 39 and # 47 Companies.  By this time, warm weather had arrived and the diary noted that "a little rain could be very welcome as the water question is getting to be serious".  On May 15, Jimmy was admitted to the CFC District hospital at Jura with tonsillitis, returning to work on May 18.  The fine weather stretched into June, leading officials to urge that "every precaution [be] taken to prevent fires in camp and bush".  This trend continued throughout the summer months, disrupted only once by heavy rains in late July.

On Monday, July 1, CFC officers organized a day-long schedule of special events to mark Dominion Day.  French and American soldiers stationed nearby joined the Jura District CFC Companies in a "very successful sports day held at Chapois".  Weather was fine and warm as the men participated in a variety of events.  Team baseball and football competitions were organized among the various companies, with individual competitions in numerous track and field events - 100 yard, 440 yard, 880 yard and one mile relay races; high jump, shot put and broad jump.  Additional events included a horse team and wagon competition, tug-of war, sack race, boxing and horseback wrestling.

The # 57 Company defeated # 39 Company to capture first place in horseback wrestling, while a Pte. Cunningham of  # 57 fought to a draw in what the District war diary describes as a "bloodthirsty combat" with a Cpl. McMillan of # 22 Company.  Visiting locals observed the festivities, which were described as "very orderly indeed…. the day went off without any hitch whatsoever".  The day concluded at 8:45 pm "with a General Assembly, Retreat and 'The King' and the Coys. then marched off in particularly good order for dismissal on their Coy. Grounds".  # 47 Company recorded the highest number of points among competing CFC Companies with a score of 20.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the American participants won the overall competition, amassing 24 points.  The No. 2 Construction Battalion, consisting of soldiers of African Nova Scotian descent, finished a respectable third with 17 points.

Work continued through the summer months as dry, warm weather created a "serious shortage of water all over the District".  On August 13, Jimmy was was one of fourteen "other ranks" granted two weeks' leave to England.   Only men with more than 11 months' service were eligible for such privileges.  As August 3 marked the first anniversary of his arrival in Jura,  Jimmy no doubt enjoyed a break from the demanding routine of the lumber camps, rejoining # 57 Company on August 30.

The warm, dry weather continued into the fall season.  On October 6, CFC commanders decided to continue working on "summer time" until early November, allowing the mills an extra hour of operation.  That same month, the camps were plagued by an outbreak of pneumonia attributed to unclean water.  A "boil water" order was issued, but tragically four deaths caused by the illness were reported over a three week period.  In the midst of this outbreak, an important change took place for Jimmy and the men of # 57 Company.  On October 23, all personnel - 4 officers and 146 "other ranks" - "proceeded by special train with full equipment to a new assignment at No. 12 District CFC, Bordeaux", located near the Bay of Biscay coast, north of Spain.

CFC soldiers working in France (unit, location and date not specified)
The No. 12 District war diary records the arrival of # 57 Company - consisting of 4 officers and 168 "other ranks" - on October 25, 1918.  Jimmy and his comrades "proceeded to Parentis to operate in the Esley forests".  Over the next two months, the District workshop supplied the Company with a variety of equipment - a smoke shaft and 3 " shafting, 3 " piping of all lengths, tool steel, threaded pipe for a steam line, and bushings for an engine flywheel, all of which suggest that the men were operating a mill as part of their new assignment.  Repairs to "collars" indicate that horses were still a part of daily operations.  The District war diary contains no other details on # 57 Company's activities in the region.

The signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918 brought an end to the felling of standing timber, but milling operations continued in all CFC districts until the existing log supply was exhausted.  Logs were milled into edged and butted lumber in the longest possible lengths, while production of railway "sleepers" ceased.  Orders stated that no mills, railways or camps were to move or be dismantled until further orders.  By the beginning of the New Year, CFC personnel in the Bordeaux district began "packing machinery for evacuation" as mill operations wound down and men started moving out of the district in preparation for demobilization.  Preference was given to married men as evacuation of personnel from France to England commenced.

The February 6 war diary entry stated that # 57 Coy. was among eight companies "getting ready for evacuation".  On February 15, Jimmy and the Company's remaining 3 officers and 126 "other ranks" boarded the SS Helennes for the journey from Bordeaux to Southampton, England, and then proceeded to CFC Base Depot at Sunningdale.   On February 28, the District 12 CFC huts where Jimmy and his comrades had been housed were turned over to French authorities, as the Canadian Forestry Corps officially departed the Bordeaux District.

Jimmy arrived at Sunningdale on February 18. A medical examination a week later listed his weight as a very fit 150 pounds, his height as 5' 9", and his general health and physical condition as excellent.   He was briefly assigned to # 6 Military Depot at Rhyl on March 14, returning to Sunningdale three days later.  On March 29, Jimmy boarded the HMT Caronia for the return journey to Canada, arriving in Halifax on April 5.  A little over one week later - April 13, 1919 - he was officially discharged from the Canadian Forestry Corps.  His discharge papers list his occupation as carpenter, and his proposed residence as Mulgrave, Guysborough County.  For his overseas service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, James Leo McDonald was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.
As was the case with most returning soldiers, Jimmy soon settled into the typical pattern of civilian life - work, marriage and family.  On May 22, 1923, he married Elizabeth Blanche, daughter of William and Rose (O'Neil) Power of Mulgrave, at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, Mulgrave.  Jimmy and Blanche would make this small Nova Scotia town their home for the rest of his life, raising a family of nine children - five boys and four girls - in their home on High Street.  

Jimmy worked with lumber in some capacity for the rest of his adult life, as might be expected given his experiences with the Canadian Forestry Corps.  He was eventually hired by Canadian National Railways as a railway carpenter and worked his way into a position as bridge and building foreman.  This line of work was typical for both the time period and location.  The railway was a basic means of transportation during Jimmy's adult years.  In addition, his place of residence was the mainland terminal where all passengers and freight to and from Cape Breton were transferred to ferry boat for passage across the Canso Strait.

Jimmy McDonald with eldest child Martina and wife Blanche (1947)
 Poor health brought Jimmy's working career to an end in 1954.  After suffering for one year from declining health due to pancreatic cancer, he passed away at St. Martha's Hospital, Antigonish on October 26, 1955, just three days shy of his 62nd birthday.  His wife Blanche continued to live in Mulgrave for several decades before moving to the Milford Haven Nursing Home, Guysborough, where she passed away at the age of 102 on October 1, 1999.  Their legacy lives on in their nine children and the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren connected to them.

Jimmy's story represents another aspect of the many contributions made by his generation to the Allied war effort in Europe.  While he did not bear arms, James Leo McDonald dedicated almost two years of his young life to the service of his country in a distant land, a sacrifice deserving of recognition.


Regimental Documents of Pte. James Leo McDonald.  Library and Archives Canada. RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6734 - 21.  Available online.

War Diaries - Headquarters - Jura Group - Canadian Forestry Corps.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5016 , Reel T-10868 File : 751.

War Diaries - Headquarters - No. 5 District - Canadian Forestry Corps.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5017 , Reel T-10868 File : 756.

War Diaries - Headquarters - Bordeaux Group - Canadian Forestry Corps.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5016 , Reel T-10868 File : 752.

All above War Diaries are available online.

Photographs and family information provided by three children of James Leo and Blanche McDonald - daughter Martina Hatchette and sons Ralph and Bernie MacDonald.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

The Canadian Forestry Corps

On February 16, 1916, Andrew Bonar Law, the British Colonial Secretary, formally asked the Duke of Connaught, Governor-General of Canada, if the British colony "would assist in the production of timber for war purposes" by providing the manpower necessary to cut and process timber in England. 

Several factors led to this unusual request.  Britain had traditionally obtained its timber by water from North America, Russia and Scandinavia.  During the war, these shipping routes were under constant threat of attack from German U-boats.  In addition, there was a critical need for cargo space to transport more valuable supplies, such as food and ammunition, to England and France.  Timber was available overseas, but there was a shortage of "skilled labourers, fellers, haulers and sawyers" to harvest and process the resource. 

Timber was in great demand at the front lines.  Lumber was needed to bolster trench walls ("revetting"), line the muddy trench floors ("duck boards"), and provide stakes for barbed wire.  Railway ties and lumber for constructing corduroy roads over muddy terrain were also in demand.  Other lumber was used to construct shelters for troops, aircraft hangars and military buildings.  

By March 1, 1916, the Canadian government responded to the Colonial Secretary's request by creating the 224th Battalion, dedicated specifically to harvesting and processing timber resources overseas.  An additional three battalions - 230th, 238th and 242nd - would be organized and recruited over the next fifteen months. 

The British government initially asked for a contingent of 1000 men.  An additional 2000 men were requested in May, and another 2000 in November 1916.  By the end of the year, 11 companies of Canadian lumbermen were working in Britain, and 3 other companies had crossed the English Channel to work in France.  In total, 3038 Canadian lumbermen were serving overseas as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

On March 17, 1916, the Canadian government authorized the creation of a Nova Scotia forestry contingent consisting of 525 men.  The "Nova Scotia Forestry Draft" was  organized into three companies, covering various parts of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.   "A" Company was recruited from Cape Breton, Victoria, Inverness and Pictou Counties, while  "B" Company was recruited from Prince Edward Island, Halifax, Cumberland and Colchester Counties.  These two companies initially mobilized at Truro.  "C" Company, recruited from Shelburne, Queens, Lunenburg, Yarmouth and Digby Counties, mobilized at Yarmouth.

Royal Engineers use duck boards to carry telephone wire to the front lines, October 1917
In late May, the three Nova Scotia companies proceeded to Aldershot for final preparations.  On July 4, 1916, the first Nova Scotian forestry recruits embarked for England on board the White Star transport Justicia.  Within a month, these recruits were divided amongst the other forestry units operating in England, Scotland and France.

On November 14, 1916, the Canadian government officially established the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC)to oversee the operations of forestry units in the United Kingdom and on the European continent. The CFC established its English headquarters at Smith's Lawn, Sunningdale, Berkshire, in the midst of Windsor Great Park.  This 20 square kilometre area of forested land was traditionally the private hunting grounds of the Royal Family, whose rural home, Windsor Castle, was located nearby.  Amongst the trees the Forestry Corps claims to have felled in the Park was the "William the Conqueror Oak",  38 feet in circumference and large enough to be 1000 years old.  As no saw was capable of cutting it from the outside, Canadian lumbermen dug a hole into the trunk large enough to allow one man to pull the saw from inside the tree!

The Canadian lumbermen brought machinery and equipment with them, to save time and money setting up sawmills to process the harvested timber.  One company of men built portable "Armstrong huts" to house the men in their camps.  By the end of the war, the Canadian Forestry Corps had produced almost 260 million board feet of lumber, 85 000 tones of round timber, and over 200 000 tons of fuel and slabs from English and Scottish forests.  Before departing for home, the men constructed a log cabin near Windsor Castle as a memorial to their wartime efforts.

The first forestry unit had crossed the English Channel in September 1916 and began harvesting timber in the Normandy region of France.  By November 1917, 58 CFC Companies were supplying lumber to British and French troops from various locations in France.  Production was divided into four groups:  a) the "Armies Area" immediately behind the British and French front lines; b) the Jura Group southeast of Paris, near the Swiss border; c) the Central Group south and west of Paris, including Normandy; and d) the Bordeaux Group in the southwest corner of France, along the shores of the Bay of Biscay near the Spanish border.  A large amount of lumber work took place immediately behind the British front lines.  The Forestry Corps produced over 550 million board feet of lumber, almost 225 000 tons of round timber, and over 600 000 tons of fuel and slab wood in France during its two years of operation there.

Due to their proximity to the front, Forestry Corps members in the "Armies Area" often came under enemy fire.  On at least one occasion, the 37th Forestry Company had to quickly abandon its mill, burying the valuable components to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.  Units in the Marne region, near Eclaron, came under constant threat of attack from air raids and artillery shell fire.  Other units worked timber left behind by retreating German units, placing them in locations close to combat.

On at least one occasion, Forestry Corps members were called to arms at the front.  In March 1918, German forces launched a major offensive in what proved to be a final attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front.  When military commanders requested that the Corps provide 500 men for combat, almost 1300 volunteered for infantry duty.  By the time the German offensive had been successfully halted the following month, a significant number of Corps members had served in some capacity on the front lines.

By November 1918, the Canadian Forestry Corps consisted of 6 battalions containing 101 companies, mostly deployed in Scotland and the Jura and Normandy regions of France.  A total of 24 000 men had served in the Corps by war's end, half of whom were located in France.  It is estimated that Canadian lumbermen produced 70 % of all lumber used by Allied forces on the Western Front, a vital contribution to their successful war effort.


Click here to watch a 7-minute film of the Canadian Forestry Corps at work overseas, courtesy of the National Film Board. Click here to view a gallery of photos of the Canadian Forestry Corps at work in England.


Hunt, M. S..  Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War.  Halifax: Nova Scotia Veteran Publishing Co., 1920.  Available online.

The Canadian Forestry Corps.  Images of a Forgotten War: Images of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War.  National Film Board of Canada.

World War I: The Canadian Forestry Corps.  The 20th Engineers homepage.