Grand Manan and the Great War (Part 25)

Part 25- Almost Rubbing Elbows with Royalty:

Frederick Foster and Caleb Fleet in the 224th Battalion

            No one would have guessed on Grand Manan that in 1916 Caleb Benson Fleet from Castalia and others from New Brunswick would possibly be staring at the back of Windsor Castle when they joined the 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion (CFB).

While many other islanders enlisted initially in the 26th Battalion or the 115th, Caleb and at least one other, Frederick Gordon Foster of Grand Harbour volunteered for the CFB. Why they chose this unit is not hard to figure out when you examine their backgrounds. In addition to their exposure to farming and fishing, both men had the additional experience on their parents’ farms with logging, lumbering, milling and working in the woods with teams of horses.

In the first full year of war, Canada played an important role in supplying timber for war purposes, ranging from construction of barracks, field hospitals, airfields and especially lumber for trenches. Early in 1916, the shortage of troop ships compelled the British government to proclaim restrictions on imports of many goods including timber. In that year alone over six million tons of timber was imported. To ease the pressure on shipping and develop more production of lumber in Great Britain, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Andrew Bonar Law, cabled the Governor General of Canada to request the aid of experienced woodsmen and millwrights. Within three months, Canada had not only responded with the creation of the 224th numbering over 1600 volunteers, but trained them in Camp Valcartier, Quebec and dispatched the first draft of men for England from Halifax aboard the Missanabie on 18 April 1916. Armed with machinery, horses and other woods equipment, the CFB was equiped to tackle the forests of Great Britain and construct their first mill at Virginia Water Camp, Surrey.

Fred Foster was twenty-seven when he volunteered for the 224th and living with his parents, Leonard Eastman Foster and Kate (Gordon) Foster. On 24 January 1911, Fred married Ida Stanton, daughter of John and Henrietta Stanton, born in Tiverton, N.S., on 1 Aug. 1895. Unfortunately, she died sometime after being recorded in the spring, 1911 census and at the time Fred enlisted in April, 1916, where he declared himself as a widower. Perhaps this loss contributed to his decision to volunteer for service.

He cited in his attestation papers that his occupation was as a teamster or one experienced in handling teams of horses for hauling logs out of the forest. He gained this knowledge and experience from working with his father, who undertook a logging business and mill operations for at least a decade and a half before the war. In 1903, the Saint John Daily Sun reported that Leonard was cutting on the glebe lot or church land where his hired crew of twenty men expected to harvest 500 million board feet of lumber. (Dec. 26) By January of the following year he had hauled out about two thousand logs. (St. C.C. 28 Jan. 1904) For the young teenaged son, this was invaluable experience that would later benefit his enlistment.

Joining Fred Foster in the same week of enlistment in April, 1916, was Caleb Benson Fleet. Son of William H. and Alice (Flagg) Fleet, he was born in Castalia on 29 July 1894 to a family of eight children. When Caleb was almost six, his family moved to Lubec where his father engaged in fishing while the five oldest children over age ten were employees in a sardine factory. However, by the end of the fishing season, it appears that the Fleet family returned to Grand Manan due to the illness of William with tuberculosis. By November, 1901, he succumbed to this disease for which there was no cure at the time.

Without the support of a husband and a large family, Alice at age forty-seven re-married Eastman Bass, ten years her junior. By 1911, they had one son, Leonard, but within four years Alice was left a widow again when Eastman died in March, 1915. Likely, Caleb, by this time, probably saw enlistment in the military as a means to support his family and siblings. And with his experience as a teamster or person who drove a team of draft horses, he was a natural selection for the 224th Battalion.

Without the details of their full service records we can only speculate that Caleb Fleet and Fred Foster were among the initial companies of the Canadian Forestry Battalion to arrive in England. They joined hundreds of other skilled labourers, fellers, haulers and sawyers who invaded the forests of England. Their main military camp was headquartered at Smith’s Lawn in Windsor Great Park where they concentrated on felling trees at Virginia Water. In addition to the Surrey location, over seventy other locations across Great Britain provided vital supplies of timber. In fact, with the shortage of British workers to undertake the tasks, Canadian troops eventually supplied in excess of 70 percent of Britain’s needs in the First World War. In the Great Park alone, observers noted that many Canadians were amazed by the sheer size of giant oaks; one tree alone in excess of thirty-eight feet in diameter. It was reported that no saw was large enough to cut it from the outside, so Canadian lumbermen cut a hole far enough into the trunk to allow a man to pull one end of a saw. (www.guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.com)

In the meantime, urgent attention was requested by French authorities to examine the potential of their forests for exploitation to meet the needs of the military. As a result, the Battalion was re-organized and enlarged with the addition of the newly formed 238th Battalion along with elements of the 230th and 242nd. Together they were granted authority in October, 1916, to amalgamate as the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). With this formation, active operations were begun in France on the Western Front where machinery and equipment was shipped from Canada to establish mills throughout the countryside sufficient to employ 10,000 troops like Caleb and Fred.

The Canadian Camp headquarters at Smith’s Lawn, Sunningdale, Berkshire, stood in the shadow of Windsor Castle, the rural home and traditional hunting grounds of the Royal family. Here on the 5,000 acres of forested land and in other locations across England, Scotland and France, the Canadian Forestry Corps were credited with producing 260 million board feet of lumber, 85,000 tonnes of round timber and 200,000 tons of wood fuel for the war effort. In addition, the CFC units in France produced another 550 million board feet of lumber, 225,000 tons of round wood and 600,000 tons of fuel and slabs. To compare to today’s needs, the average home would likely consume about 14,000 board feet of lumber.

Without a doubt, the CFC insured that Allied troops kept both warm and dry with the constant supply of two essential components- fuel for their camp fires, and, duck boards in the trenches to keep their feet dry. Caleb Fleet and Frederick Foster can both be credited with being part of this important supply line, a Corps that saw participation by a total of 24,000 men by war’s end.

Sources:

Library and Archives Canada

Vital Statistics, Provincial Archives of New Brunswick

Saint John Daily Sun

St. Croix Courier, St. Stephen

www.guysboroughgreatwarveterans.blogspot.com

Sault City Online- www.cityssm.on.ca

http://www.ancestry.com