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Friday, 5 June 2020

Corporal Frederick Milburne Rhodes—A Widower’s Story

Date of Birth: April 24, 1869*

Place of Birth: Port Burwell, Ontario*

Mother: Rachel Henney   

Father: Robert Rhodes

Occupation: Prospector, Farmer & Lumberman

Marital Status: Widowed

Enlistments: July 3, 1916 at Haileybury, ON; February 16, 1917 at Iroquois Falls, ON

Regimental #: 649480 (first attestation); 2250034 (second attestation)

Rank: Corporal

Force: Canadian Forestry Corps

Units: 159th Battalion (1st Algonquins); No. 105 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps

Service: England

Next of Kin: Madeleine Alberta Rhodes, New Liskeard, ON (daughter)

*: Date of birth based on 1881 and 1901 Canadian census records. Place of birth obtained from a document in Fred’s service file. The spelling of his middle name varies significantly from one source to another. For the purpose of this document. “Milburne” is used, as it is most frequently used. An apparent discrepancy between Fred’s marriage date and the birth of his eldest son could not be resolved.


Frederick Milburne “Fred” Rhodes was born at Port Burwell, near Tillsonburg, Ontario, on April 14, 1869, the second of Robert and Rachel (Henney) Rhodes’ nine children. Robert, a native of Michigan, USA, and Rachel, an Ontario native, were married in Norfolk County, Ontario, on February 12, 1866. The couple resided in the Tillsonburg area until some time prior to the 1891 Canadian census, by which time the family had relocated to the Maclean Township district of Ontario.

Cpl. Frederick Milburne Rhodes
According to existing provincial records, Fred married Margaret McReynolds, daughter of Ronald and Elizabeth Ann (Reynolds) McReynolds, at McLean, Ontario, on September 19, 1892. The couple raised three children in their home—Middleton Milburne, born at Huntsville, ON, on January 8, 1888*; Robert Roland, born at Baysville, Muskoka, ON, on July 20, 1893; and Madeleine Alberta, born at Bethune, Muskoka, ON, on November 12, 1901.

The family was residing in Sinclair Township, Muskoka, Ontario, at the time of the 1901 Canadian census, but had relocated to Temiskaming, Ontario, by 1911. While census records list Fred’s occupation as farmer, his later military attestations listed previous employment as “prospector” and “lumberman,” suggesting that he supported his family by working at several occupations common to the area. Family sources indicate that Fred worked for a time in the hard rock mines, an environment that may have contributed to a significant hearing loss later noted in his military file.

Tragedy struck the Rhodes family on September 15, 1914, when 50-year-old Margaret passed away at Lady Minto Hospital, New Liskeard, ON, the result of complications from a stroke. Within months of her passing, the events of a distant war also began to impact the surviving family members. On November 12, 1914, Middleton enlisted for overseas service with the 20th Battalion at Toronto, ON. His military service was short-lived, as he was “struck off strength” one month later when he refused “to be inoculated.” Middleton returned home, married Fanny Harriet Evans at Timiskaming, ON, on April 24, 1915, and remained a civilian for the war’s duration.

Within days of Middleton’s discharge, his younger brother, Robert, attested with the 159th Battalion (1st Algonquins) at New Liskeard, ON. His younger son’s enlistment appears to have piqued Fred’s interest in “doing his bit.” On July 3, 1916, Fred joined Robert’s unit at Haileybury, Temiskaming Shores, ON. Based on the information on his attestation, Fred was no stranger to military routine. He claimed 12 years’ service with the 35th Regiment, Canadian militia, and was an active member of the 97th Regiment at the time of his first enlistment.

Left to Right: Robert, Madeleine & Fred Rhodes
To enhance his chances of overseas service, Fred misreported his birth year as 1872. In the end, age was not a determining factor in his eventual fate. Fred was discharged from the 159th’s ranks at Camp Borden, ON, on September 19, 1916, a note in his service file describing him as “medically unfit—Arterio Sclerosis.” Further details listed in his medical records describe a “[moderately] pronoted [sic] right foot,” and indicated that Fred’s “right leg [was] noticeably smaller than [the] left.”

While Robert departed for the United Kingdom with the 159th on October 31, 1916, Fred spent the winter months at New Liskeard. The arrival of the New Year presented a second opportunity for enlistment, when military authorities launched a nation-wide recruitment campaign for volunteers interested in overseas service with the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). Fred attested with CFC Reinforcements at Iroquois Falls, ON, on February 16, 1917, once again misreporting his age by three years. On this occasion, the only medical item recorded in his service file is a comment on the back of Fred’s attestation that reads, “Hearing defective.”

Fred left his young daughter Madeleine in the care of “friend” John Atwell Hough, Matheson, ON, whom he named as her guardian. He also listed Madeleine as his next of kin and the sole inheritor in his military will. On June 23, 1917, Fred sailed for the United Kingdom aboard SS Justicia and arrived overseas after a 13-day journey.  Initially assigned to No. 114 Company, CFC, at Eartham, Sussex, on August 22, 1917, Fred spent two months with the unit before a draft of its personnel waw transferred to the newly formed No. 105 Company, CFC, on October 22, 1917, the day of its official formation.

No. 105 Company’s personnel initially commenced operations alongside No. 114 Company personnel at Esher and Eartham, Sussex, but was transferred to the Stevenstone Estate, Torrington, North Devon, in late November 1917. The location was “very hilly,” but a small stream provided sufficient water supply. The nearest railway station was more than three miles distant, along a route passing through the town of Torrington. A lack of onsite facilities initially required No. 105’s personnel to be placed in billets around the town while a camp was constructed.

The available forest consisted mainly of Scotch pine, spruce and larch. The Company’s November 1917 diary described the resource as “very scattered and difficult to operate. The trees are small and straight[,] with limbs to the ground.” The fact that the wooded area was long and narrow meant that the furthest area was more than two miles from the Company’s proposed mill location.

On November 26, 1917, Fred was promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal with pay, an acknowledgment of his leadership, age and experience. Meanwhile, No. 105 Company’s progress during December 1917 was “only fair,” hampered by the limits of local geography, poor railway services, a small number of men and horses, and lack of mechanical transport. While camp construction proceeded and personnel managed to cut 1,400 logs, overall operations were hampered “owing to the small number of men available for this work.”

January 1918 brought “considerable rain, sleet, etc.,” further complicating operations. Lack of motor and steam transport, combined with poor ground conditions, “somewhat hampered” the movement of harvested logs to the mill site. “Fair progress” was made, owing largely to the arrival of reinforcements that raised the Company’s complement to three Officers and 182 “other ranks” (OR) by month’s end. While personnel remained in billets, considerable headway was made in clearing the camp site.

Harvesting, however, was “only fair as we have few men who are experienced in bush work.” Crews produced a total of 5,000 logs and 28,000 lineal feet of “pit wood” [roof props for mines], while work commenced on construction of a small gauge railway to haul logs from the wooded area to the mill. The line was blazed and marked, but no rails laid due to a lack of spikes.

The following month, an outbreak of measles in the town resulted in six men being placed in quarantine. Meanwhile, eight gangs commenced work in the forest operation, but three were later reassigned to camp construction. A total of 7,500 logs and 5,000 pieces of pit wood were harvested. Lack of road transport limited the hauling of logs to the mill site. A 500-yard stretch of of railway track was graded and laid, while the mill cut its first log on February 2 and commenced regular operations 10 days later. By month’s end, it was producing a daily average of 8,500 FBM [foot board measure] of lumber.

While shipping commenced on February 25, the lack of a proper road from the loading platform to the main road hindered operations. The arrival of two gasoline-powered tractors and four wagons dramatically improved the Company’s ability to move harvested logs to the mill and reduced its dependency on horse-drawn wagons.

On March 2, 1918, rank and file personnel moved into newly constructed huts at the camp site, while their Officers occupied their quarters one week later. Plank walkways connected sleeping quarters, kitchen and mess room buildings, allowing for easy movement around the muddy camp grounds. Meanwhile, bush operations produced 8,500 logs, 15,000 telephone poles, and 6,000 lineal feet of pit wood. A stockpile of 15,000 logs at the harvesting area awaited transport to the mill.

A lack of “fish plates” [a flat piece of metal used to join one rail to another] prevented further railway construction and forced the Company to rely entirely on its two tractors to move logs to the mill site. Meanwhile, mill production increased to an average of 16,000 FBM daily. Two Mack lorries made daily trips to the railway head with lumber shipments as road conditions improved significantly toward month’s end. The Company reported its first “casualties” since arriving in the Torrington area, both work-related incidents. One OR sustained injuries to his left hand serious enough to require amputation at the wrist, while a second OR lost three fingers on his left hand.

By the end of April 1918, the camp site had been considerable improved with the installation of surface water drains and liberal use of sawdust in damp areas. The light railway was still incomplete, but the required fish plates had arrived and completion was anticipated in the near future. A total of 10,000 logs were harvested, while 20,000 linear feet of pit wood was produced. A stockpile of 15,000 logs still remained at the harvesting area, but the imminent completion of the rail line would increase transport capacity to the mill site. Daily average production increased once more, reaching 18,000 FBM.

With the arrival of spring weather, the Company implemented measures for fire protection at the mill and various camp buildings. While harvesting and milling operations proceeded satisfactorily, lack of suitable load facilities and rail cars hampered the ability to export the mill’s output. A large garden planted earlier in the spring as a food source was beginning to show results, but the monthly report lamented that “the rabbits and pigeons are very destructive and devour mostly all of the green and soft plants.”

Throughout this time, Fred worked at No. 105 Company’s Torrington camp without incident. During the winter of 1917-18—possibly while billeted in the town—he made the acquaintance of a local woman and the couple planned to marry in early June 1918. Fred also found a few minutes to write a short note, dated May 1918, to two unidentified siblings in Canada:

“Dear Brother and Sister: I received your most welcome letter and am glad to tell you I am much better now. We are having much better weather, nice and warm now. I hope it will stay like it as I cannot stand the damp weather in this county. Glad to hear that Father is well, give my best love to him and hope to see him again soon. I do wish the war would soon end so that we can get home again by the time you receive this letter. I guess I shall be married again. I don’t think I have any more news to tell this time so will close with best love to all from your loving brother Fred.”

Tragically, neither Fred’s nuptial plans nor his homecoming came to fruition. On Friday, May 31, 1918, Fred was working in No. 105 Company’s mill yard at Torrington, North Devon. Around 1:20 pm, he commenced “an operation of splitting logs by planting powder,” a standard procedure for CFC personnel. A document in Fred’s service file, written by his OC, Captain Samuel Lester Willman, and dated June 1, 1918, described the process and subsequent events:

“Four two-inch holes were bored to the centre of a large log and these holes were filled to within 4 inches of the top with blasting powder. Bickford No. 11 Safety Fuse was inserted and holes were plugged by means of four 4 inch wooden plugs, fuses were cut at different lengths, so as to cause simultaneous explosion…. Corporal Rhodes… lit the short fuse first and although warned that he had committed an error, and told to run, he continued until all four fuses were lit. He then came back towards the first fuse, and when immediately opposite same and about five feet from the log, the explosion of the first charge took place. A large piece of the log, weighing 114 lbs. which was thrown by the force of the explosion, hit Corporal Rhodes on [the] right side of his head and right shoulder. He was killed instantly, the base of his skull being fractured[,] also his right arm. It is considered that the fuse inserted in the first charge was of sufficient length but must have been defective, otherwise the explosion would not have taken place for another 15 seconds.”

Captain Willman concluded with the following statement: “I personally supervised this operation and warned the deceased… to run as soon as I saw him light the short fuse.” Considering the medical notes in Fred’s service record, it is possible that his defective hearing meant that he did not hear the warning. Corporal Fred Rhodes was “buried with Military honours” in Great Torrington Cemetery, Devon, UK, on Sunday, June 2, 1918.

Cpl. Frederick Rhodes' headstone, Great Torrington Cemetery

Fred’s son, Robert, served overseas for the duration of the war. Several months after his arrival in the United Kingdom, he was transferred to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) in mid-June 1917 and joined the unit in the field on September 30, 1917. Robert was wounded in the right shoulder at Passchendaele, Belgium, on October 28, 1917, and spent three months under medical care before rejoining 4th CMR’s ranks on February 8, 1918. He served at the front without incident for the remainder of the war and returned to Canada aboard SS Carmania in mid-March 1919.

On July 7, 1919, Robert married Annie Pearl Bilow, daughter of James and Ellen (Strader) Bilow, in a ceremony held at New Liskeard, Timiskaming, ON. Almost exactly one year later—July 22, 1920—Robert’s sister, Madeleine, married his wife’s brother, William Earl Bilow, at the same location. While William had served on the Western Front with the 15th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), his time in uniform was plagued by periods of poor health. On September 26, 1916, he was wounded by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell during fighting at the Somme, France. Buried in the resulting debris, William survived the ordeal but suffered from “shell shock” after the experience and was eventually deemed “unfit for further services in France” in September 1918.

William returned to Canada in mid-April 1919. Sometime after his July 1920 marriage, he and Madeleine relocated to Port Alberni, British Columbia, where Madeleine passed away on July 30, 1931, at 29 years of age. Middleton Rhodes also made his way out west after the war, passing away at Surrey, BC, on April 24, 1962.

Special thanks to Don Rhodes, Liskeard, ON, who provided Rhodes family photos for this post. I am also indebted to Paul Martin, Torrington, UK, who first brought Fred's story to my attention and provided a photograph of Fred's headstone.

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