The Canadians in Devon

By Kent Fedorowich

New Series, 2018, p. 2.

In the autumn of 2018, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter will host several exhibitions to commemorate the Armistice which was signed on 11 November 1918.  Working in partnership with Southwest Heritage Trust, Exeter City Council, the Regional History Centre (UWE), the First World War Engagement Centre at the University of Hertfordshire, and RAMM, Dr Kent Fedorowich (UWE) has, since 2016, been part of the steering committee that has been focussing its efforts on one of the exhibitions entitled, ‘The Canadians in Devon, 1914-1919’.

Devon played a central but until now a little understood role in the Canadian war experience.  It was on 14 October 1914 that the 33,000-strong First Canadian Contingent disembarked at Plymouth to a tumultuous welcome.  The Illustrated London News could not contain its enthusiasm: ‘Nothing like the Canadian contingent has been landed in this country since the time of William the Conqueror’.  The Devon connection would grow as the war unfolded.  After the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915, Canadian casualties streamed into the hospitals and convalescent homes established throughout the county.  But it was in February 1916 when the British government requested Canadian assistance in exploiting British forests for the war effort, that a small but permanent establishment of Canadian soldiers made their home in Devon.  

The growing German submarine threat had forced London to stop importing Canadian timber as food, munitions and forage were prioritized for transhipment across the North Atlantic.  A viable alternative, however, was the recruitment of experienced Canadian labour which could harvest Britain’s ancient forests.  It was suggested that a battalion of lumbermen, totalling 1,500 men, was urgently needed to undertake this vital war work.  Within six weeks 1,600 men from across Canada were recruited to the 224th Canadian (Forestry) Battalion, based out of Ottawa.  Encamped near Newton Abbot on Major Harold St. Maur’s estate at Stover, one of the first contingents of Canadian foresters was warmly welcomed tinged, as it was, with immense curiosity.    

The exhibition will explore the contributions and exploits of the Canadians in Devon during the Great War.  Equally important, it explores the interactions between the Canadians and their Devon hosts as they lived, loved and worked in the county between 1914 and 1919.

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