As a collector of militaria, I tend to fixate my thoughts on those pieces that pertain to combat or combat personnel, such as their uniforms and weaponry. With my specific area of interest—those in my family and ancestry who served in uniform in the armed forces—collecting items to recreate representations for these people has been relatively simple. My passion for history and knowledge of the United States military provides me with a leg up in the pursuit of knowledge and the nuances of the required research. As I pursue certain branches of my family tree, I am required to depart from this American-centric comfort zone as I head toward the land of the unknown: the Canadian and British military forces.
While conducting some scant research on a few relatives, I discovered that one of them, a Scot, served with the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment of Foot (which would later become the Black Watch) in the Americas during the War of 1812, as I mentioned in my piece, The Obscure War – Collecting the War of 1812. This ancestor, as well as his father (who also served in the same Scottish regiment), fought for what I would deem as the “enemy.” Once I got past that distinction, I was able to continue researching, setting aside any biases.
In researching more immediate family members along the same British family lines (see my previous post, I am an American Veteran with Canadian Military Heritage), I discovered that my great, great-grandfather answered his nation’s call to serve against Imperial Germany in what would be known as the War to End All Wars. At his “advanced” age of 47 and a recent widower, my ancestor could have elected to abstain from service (the Military Service Act, 1917 required service of men aged 18-41), yet he felt compelled to serve in some capacity. Like many Canadians who would otherwise have been ineligible for military duty due to age or physical limitations, and who served in other support-based, non-combatant, units, my great, great-grandfather joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces (C.E.F.) Forestry Battalion.
With the insatiable demand for lumber to be utilized at the war front (for trench walls and shoring, duckboards, crates, containers and building construction), the British government called upon the experienced woodsmen of North America to begin to harvest the seemingly unending forests of Canada. Desiring expediency in the supply chain between the lumbermen and the front, combined with the demand to utilize the invaluable cargo space aboard the merchant vessels for other needs, the military leaders determined that by bringing the Forestry Corps troops to Europe to harvest timber in the forests of the UK and France would better serve the needs of the front line troops.
Between 1916 and the signing of the Armistice, some 31,000 men served with the C.E.F. Forestry Corps in Canada and Europe. During that period, the Forestry Corps produced nearly 814,000,000 feet board measure of sawn wood plus 1,114,000 tons of other wood products. Though he probably never picked up a weapon (some units were close enough to the front and were required to be prepared to be used as reserve troops), my great, great grandfather served in an invaluable capacity risking life and limb for the war effort.
As with all of my collecting efforts, I am continuously seeking to document and locate artifacts that can be assembled to form representative displays for the many veterans in my family’s history. With regard to my great, great grandfather, I have only begun to scratch the surface in researching the uniforms of the Forestry Corps and what he might have worn along with any decorations he might have earned.
A few years ago, I managed to locate a pair of collar devices that are specific to his unit, the 230th Forestry Battalion. Being that my focus has been with U.S. militaria, I’ve gained an appreciation for the beauty of the Canadian and British uniform appointments. In examining the devices, one can quickly see the Canadian heritage in the maple leaf design. Along with the Forestry Corps word-mark, there is a beaver on the crest to punctuate the principal function of the unit. Superimposed across the front is the battalion designation, clearly identifying to which military unit the wearer belongs to.
Not too long after locating the collar devices, an auction for the matching hat device was listed and I was the subsequent highest bidder. With three pieces, I started watching for other items that would display well in a small shadow box of items representing my great-great grandfather’s service. Searching for such hard to find items as Canadian Forestry Corps pieces requires patience. I am not sure exactly how far I will go in the pursuit of assembling this Forestry Corps display as the pieces are sparse and difficult to find when compared to U.S. pieces of the same era. It might be quite costly to put together the even most minimalistic grouping of items which may force me to quit with what I have today.
Like my other ongoing projects, this one could last the span of several years. More so than funds, I have the time to wait for the right pieces!
I’ve been revisiting my family tree research, spurred on by catching up on watching episodes of The Learning Channel’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) The show follows a pretty simplistic theme of tracing some Hollywood notable’s ancestral history as they have been suddenly overcome with desire to know where they came from. There is always some sort of misplaced desire for self-validation as they seek to identify with the very real struggles that someone in their family tree endured centuries ago. In watching them I often find the humor as the celebrity emotionally aligns with a nine or ten times great grandparent as if that person were an active part of their life. Where the humor in this originates is that one must consider exactly how many great grandparents one has at this particular point in our ancestry.
My 3x great grandfather (one of sixteen such 3x great grandfathers) served with the 6th Pennsylvania Cavalry during the American Civil War) and like the Hollywood celebrities on WDYTYA, I have researched him extensively and I do identify with him. But consider that there are 15 other 3x great grandfathers along with eight 2x greats, four greats and two grandfathers. That means that five generations above me encompass 28 grandfathers including the lone Civil War veteran that I thoroughly researched. If viewed this prospective with another one of the great grandfathers (whom I researched and found to have served during the American Revolution), he would be one of 64 5x great grandfathers (for a total of 254 total grandfathers at this generation-level). This can get confusing to grasp without a visual:
I have been gathering artifacts together to create representations of some of my ancestors with military service. I have been sporadically researching as many relatives as I can locate to document a historical narrative of service by members of my family. This is a daunting task considering how many direct ancestors I have and I have been also including some uncles and cousins as I uncover them. One of my 2x great grandfathers (one of 8 such great grandfathers) was a British citizen who emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia with his wife and ten children a few years following the turn of the twentieth century. By the time the Great War broke out in Europe in 1914, he was a 45-year-old carpenter and home builder. When he was drafted into the Forestry Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in June of 1916, he was 47 and a widower. He served in Europe for the duration of the war harvesting timber for use in the war effort, plying his carpentry skills in some fashion being far too old for combat duty.
Having a Canadian veteran ancestor (one of two – I wrote about the other one, previously) posed some challenges in researching his service as nearly every aspect of research is different from what I am familiar with (with American military records). Learning the terminology and the unit structure was difficult but even more challenging was deciphering my GG grandfather’s service records let alone locating details as to what his uniform insignia and devices would have been. Thanks to a few helpful CEF sites and forums, I was able to piece together some of the principle elements in order to assemble a shadow box at some point in the future.
As any Canadian militaria collector could tell you, locating pieces from individual regiments/units of the Forestry Corps can be daunting. When I started on this path a few years ago, the prices were higher than those of American units by as much as three times. Collar and cap devices and badges were can reach prices beyond $40-50 (collar) and $70-100 (for caps badges). Not that ever intended to purchase actual uniforms pieces (tunic, cap, hat, etc.), I still maintained a watchful eye just to see what might show up for sale. Today, my eyes were enlarged and mouth left agape when something appeared in my automated search for such items.
Listed yesterday on eBay was a 1917-dated British trench hat that is in impeccable condition, complete with the badge of my 2x great-grandfather’s unit. Everything about this century-old cap seems to be in an incredible state – the hat’s shape, the leather sweatband – all of it. But then I saw the opening bid amount – $750.00 (in USD) – and immediately, my jaw struck my desktop beneath me! In the “People who viewed this item also viewed” section were British head covers (one trench hat and two visor caps) of comparable condition but with devices from other, non-Forestry units with prices that ranged from $500-700, depending upon the unit insignia. The hat from my ancestor’s unit topped the range of prices. Being in possession of the cap device, I wouldn’t need to pursue such an expensive purchase (I don’t need the hat for the display that I am assembling) so I will simply watch to see if the hat does end up finding a new home and take note of the selling price.
With just one of my maternal 2x great grandfathers with military service (albeit, British-Canadian) and none of my paternal 2x great grandfathers, I don’t have any more military artifacts left to gather for this particular generation (unless I am able to discover new facts for others). The preceding and following generations reveal that I have a lot of research effort in store for me not to mention what lies ahead for me within my wife’s equally extensive family military history.
Genealogical research is funny. Overlooking the smallest, insignificant details can insert unintended road blocks into continuing down a valid pathway. With my family (which, I suppose isn’t too different from most families), there are so many branches of the tree to pursue which demands a lot of time spent down in the details. One little detail that I overlooked, kept me guessing on and off for over a year.
In July of 2012, I requested and obtained the WWI Canadian Expeditionary Forces (CEF) service records for my maternal grandmother’s father after making an Ancestry.com discovery of his military attestation record (his service was unknown to my family). Having served in the U.S. military, I am rather familiar with acronyms and terminology that is prevalent across multiple branches of the armed forces. In reviewing my great-grandfather’s CEF records, I began to realize that a fair amount of the documentation was difficult to discern, so much so that I found myself focusing more on the terms I did know and overlooking those that I was unfamiliar with.
In examining the rather thin record, I found that my great-grandfather had been called up and was inducted on April 22, 1918 and was discharged on May 6, 1918 after just 15 days of service in the Canadian Army. The discharge certificate reads: “Discharge from the service by reason of ‘Special Case’ Authority Routine Order No. 180 dated 3-2-13. D.C.C. 11 M.D. 99-4-113-13.” This reason was found on several of the pages of his out-processing so from there, I made assumptions and ignored some of the other, more detailed data. I figured that he might have had a medical condition (note the “M.D.” in the above typed reason) or, perhaps there was a family hardship. Either way, he served slightly more than two weeks prior to being discharged.
A few years ago, my mother presented me with a box full of snapshots and photographs to scan (which I am slowly working on…when I have the time) in an effort to make them available to whoever in the family desires. One of the pictures caught my attention about the time I received my grandfather’s CEF records. The photo was a framed enlargement (from a snapshot) that showed my great-grandfather in a maritime uniform that was clearly Canadian (or British, even). My exposure to anything Canadian maritime was limited to lifting a few cans of Molson aboard a Canadian Destroyer in Pearl Harbor and riding the British Columbia Ferries to Vancouver Island. Translation: I know next-to-nil about Canadian uniforms (military or civil). Looking at my great-grandfather, I was left guessing.
The perplexing part of this story was that the uniform was maritime rather than Army (the CEF Army uniforms were very similar to the American Expeditionary Forces Army uniforms). Needless to say, I was entirely in the dark. Why was a two-week army veteran wearing a clearly non-army uniform? Since last year, the photo has been displayed on a table in our living room inspiring questions from family and guests as to the subject and the uniform in question.
In researching another relative who served in the CEF, I finally decided to reach out to experts to see if someone could enlighten me as my uninformed searches over the last year yielded zero positive results. On Tuesday of this week, I posted the images to a Canadian militaria collector’s forum and sent them to the Canadian Navy League. Today, I received word that the uniform is that of a Canadian naval petty officer first or second class. Thankful for the confirmation, I was still left guessing as to why my ancestor was wearing a navy uniform when he served in the army.
I scanned the Canadian Archives site to determine the next approach to see if I would be able to request records of my great-grandfather’s naval service (if they actually exist). None of the information stood out to me so I decided to take another peek at the CEF records that I already had. As I skimmed through each page, I kept seeing the same reference to the reason for discharge. A few pages deeper, something leapt off the page: “Cause of Discharge – to join R.N.C.V.R.” One simple Google search and I had it nailed. My great grandfather left the Army to join the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve.
Armed with this information, I can now pursue (and hopefully be successful) my great grandfather’s naval reserve service records. Clearly he served long enough to advance to petty officer 2nd or 1st class in a short period of time. By October of 1922, my great grandfather and his bride emigrated to the United States and settled in what would become, my hometown. Less than ten years later, he would pass away leaving behind two young daughters and his widow. Any inkling of his wartime service was lost to the ages, leaving me to discover it more than 90 years later.