A relatively little-known aspect of the First World War was the heavy exploitation of forests by the belligerents. From the outset of the war of position the front line required an enormous amount of timber-based products, mostly posts and planks of various shapes and sizes for the construction of fortifications, shelters and tunnels. British demand for timber soon outweighed supplies imported from Scandinavia, the principal source of wood since the beginning of the war. In addition the underwater war which had been raging in the North Sea since 1915 severely hindered timber supplies travelling by ship. This situation meant that the British Army soon turned to the forests of Northern France, a vast and easily exploitable resource, for its timber and over a period of nearly three years British sappers of the Royal Engineers felled and sawed the forests of Flanders to satisfy demand for one of the war's major raw materials.
At first the French paid little attention to this activity, probably underestimating the needs of its British ally; however in early 1915, following "damage caused by the British Army" in the forests of Nieppe and Clairmarais (situated in the departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais respectively and the first to be exploited by the British in France), French military command felt it was time to create a forestry department within its military liaison commission to the British Army to put a stop to the anarchic exploitation of the forests. Conscious of the situation, and under pressure from the French government, the British Army responded by setting up a forestry directorate attached to its General Headquarters. French foresters were thus appointed and invested with the power to authorize or prohibit the felling of trees for use by the British forces in state-owned forests. They also regulated private forests which the British Army exploited under contract with the owners.
In 1918 the British were exploiting an area of forest equivalent to 44,500 hectares in a dozen locations in five departments north of the river Seine. The largest of these were Nieppe in Nord, Clairmarais and Tournehem in Pas-de-Calais, Crécy and Creuse in Somme, Eu, Brotonne, Rouvray and La Londe in Seine-Inférieure (now Seine-Maritime) and Lyons in Eure.
Relations between the Allies over forestry issues were not always as cordial as would have been hoped by both parties. Often powerless to intervene, French observers could only bring attention to the massive destruction in reports such as the one written in April 1918 which reads, "Felling [by the British] is not always carried out with the care it requires [...] Operations start before the forestry directorate or the owner has had time to mark out the reserve areas [...] Quantities entered into felling records used to calculate the compensation for the owners of the forests sometimes fall short of the reality [...] Prices paid are, in some cases, lower than normal".
From December 1915 the quantity of timber extracted from French forests by the British increased steadily and culminated in March 1918 with a record 119,000 tons of wood felled (more than seven times the quantity felled in March 1916). For the period between November 1917 and November 1918 sources indicate that the British Army used two million tons of French timber for construction purposes and another 90,000 tons of wooden posts between February and May 1918.
The growth in timber production also led to a huge increase in the number of workers employed by the British in French forests and between 1915 and 1918 they increased twenty-five fold. Lumberjacks working for the British were a diverse group; most were prisoners of war (57.5%), some were British soldiers (18%) others were Chinese labourers (18.1%) a few were Canadian (5%) and a small number were French civilians (1.3%).
The exploitation of forests in Northern France, which was rapidly extended to the north-western seaboard, was particularly useful for the British Army and a perfect illustration of the military and commercial cooperation between the Allied nations during the war. In Northern France alone the state-owned forests provided the British Army with 300,000 cubic metres of lumber and nearly a million cubic metres of timber for firewood and mine props. By the end of the Great War the extensive felling carried out by the armies and the damage caused by field artillery had decimated the forests of France.
Member of the History and Archeology Commission
of the Pas-de-Calais département