Forgotten sacrifices

Forestry veteran recounts story, struggles

Andrea Gunn
Published on November 8, 2012
Lloyd Thompson, former Botwood mayor, is a Second World War veteran. He served with the forestry unit, was part of the home guard for the defense of Britain, and fought for the rights of forestry veterans post-war.
Andrea Gunn

Now in his 90s, former Botwood mayor Lloyd Thompson still lives in the house by the water he bought for his family after the Second World War. The walls are lined with honours and accolades praising his community and volunteer work. There are dozens of photos of family, friends, and important moments in time cluttering his living room walls  – each frame a vestige of a life of love and dedication.

“Everything I’ve done, I’ve had to fight for it,” Thompson said, matter-of-factly.

Thompson was only 21 – albeit already married with a child ­– when he boarded a train in Bishop’s Falls to head overseas.

Like many young men, Thompson felt he couldn’t stand by while the war claimed more lives.

“I’ll always remember one thing, when I got aboard the train…my wife put her arm around me, and with tears in her eyes she said ‘I’ll never see you again, will I?’”

In 1940 Thompson joined 3,600 other Newfoundlanders – many from the central region – who would eventually be part of the largely unknown overseas forestry unit. They were tasked with the backbreaking job of cutting timber from the forests of Scotland to supply a desperate Great Britain during a time when many of their men were busy fighting what felt like a loosing war, or had already perished in the conflict.

Thompson was what was called a scaler. His job was to measure the timber and see that it was shipped to the various locations.

“It was very important,” said Thompson. “We cut the wood that was needed for the mines, and the buildings, and the war, generally.”

But Thompson did more than just work in the forests; he was part of the second round of forestry volunteers that were shipped overseas, which he called the “unfortunate draft.”

“When I say that, it’s because when we landed in Scotland in 1940, the British army and the French army had been defeated by the Germans,” he explained. “The idea at the time was that Hitler was coming across the channel to invade Great Britain, and they had nothing, only us.”

Thompson, along with others in his unit, was asked to volunteer for the home guard for the defense of Britain. On top of forestry duties, they were responsible for anything from guarding airports, constructing obstructions on beaches to slow the Germans should they land, to cleaning up English towns and cities that had been destroyed in enemy air raids.

“Britain had no army, no nothing – but we were there,” he said. “We were all over the place, whenever there was a need and an emergency, we were into it. We had a lot of unpleasant things to do, but we did our job.”

Thompson said the hardest things he faced as a member of the home guard were the two instances he was called upon to clean up debris following air raids in London.

“I visited two places in England that was bombed, and I’m telling you, that’s enough for me,” he said. “Maybe I’m faint of heart but it took me a while to get (rid of) the thought of an arm or a leg up in a tree.”

“I saw grown men, bigger than me, that had to be sent home crying –they just couldn’t take it.”


A second battle

Lucky for Thompson and his counterparts, Hitler never made it to the beaches of Great Britain. By 1943, contrary to his wife’s worries, Thompson had made it home to Botwood safe and sound.

But for the thousands of forestry division members that left everything behind to do the labour of an all-but-defeated nation, the fight had just begun.

Thompson was one of the lucky ones, in the loosest sense of the word. Aside from the fact that he had survived three grueling years – something not all forestry unit members were able to do – his time serving with the home guard ensured Thompson was given veteran status. This meant he was entitled to a pension, and all the other rights that front-line troops were given for their sacrifice.

The others that served alongside Thompson in the forests of Scotland were not.

“The people that came over after, when the need (for the home guard) wasn’t there, were not considered veterans,” said Thompson. “There were (thousands) of people in the forestry that weren’t recognized as playing any part.”

Forestry members, along with the merchant navy, were also not accepted into the Royal Canadian Legion, and when the government of Newfoundland issued volunteer medals after the war, they were excluded from recognition.

Thompson said even friends, family and neighbors didn’t treat the forestry members the way they treated other veterans.

“I hated to see what was happening, they should have gotten (recognition).”

Even though Thompson was considered a veteran, he said after serving alongside his comrades in the forestry division he couldn’t stand by while their contributions were ignored.

“We had three meetings in Ottawa with government until finally they got what everyone else got,” said Thompson.

After years of effort, in 1958, members of the forestry division were given veteran status, pensions, and access to all associated programs.

“We got some opposition from local people, they thought because they put the uniform on, they won the war,” said Thompson. “But if it hadn’t been for people like us, and the merchant navy, they wouldn’t have had no war. They did a good job, and anyone who was in the forestry got nothing to be ashamed of.”


Pride and glory?

Despite all he contributed to his country during its greatest time of need, Thompson said he doesn’t look back with pride.

“I’m proud in the sense that I went and tried to stop it – I did what I could,” Thompson said thoughtfully. “But there’s not much pride in all the death and destruction that was caused.”

Thompson said at the time, serving was a duty, but nothing more.

“War, for me, is nothing only damn stupidity,” he said. “I’ve heard it called glorious, but there’s not much glory in going over the side of a ship in the mid-Atlantic in February. There’s not much glory in crawling up to your ass in mud and getting shot, and lying there bleeding to death.”

One of his grandsons is a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, Thompson said, pointing to one of the framed photos on the wall.

“It gives me shivers down my spine.”

With a lifetime to reflect, he said he’s not sure what good any of the wars have done in changing the nature of men, or if all the sacrifices of the past mean anything anymore.

“I go to all the functions, I’m a member of the Legion…I go up to the memorial grounds and attend the services, but deep down I have to ask myself why,” Thompson said.

“Because even today, after going through all this fighting, with so many people killed, even in a small community like Botwood you see the stores with barricades on their windows and churches with locked doors. Not much respect there, is there?”

Thompson pauses, and shakes his head.

“You have to ask yourself ‘why?’ And this is what I think – I don’t think it means a damn thing in the world.”