Lochbroom Stories

We would like to thank Muren Schachter for allowing us access to the memoirs of Fred Vipond and for information and help.


Sergeant Vipond, the German Timbermen and the Trees of Lochbroom - a forgotten tragedy


Lochbroom July 1918. On the continent of Europe the slaughter that had begun in 1914 was just as bloody. Total war had demanded the mobilisation of the entire population for the war effort.
 In Britain over five million men had left to join the armed forces. Women had taken on many of the tasks once performed by the men, but still labour to keep agriculture and industry active and continue the war effort was scarce. The government had also turned to the many thousands of German prisoners held in the country as another source of workers. The Hague Convention allowed the use of prisoners of war for various tasks, as long as they were not directly involved in war work. Thus many of the prisoners were put to work in agriculture and by 1917 also in Forestry.

Wood was a major resource, vital for building and military use. Britain had at the outbreak of war been importing 90% of its needs from Canada and the USA. However, wood was also bulky. Space for munitions and other materiel was at a premium on the merchant convoys plying the Atlantic. It seemed more practical to take the timbermen to the trees rather than shipping the wood already cut. A call in February 1916 for experienced forestry workers from among the ranks servicemen, led rapidly to the formation of the Canadian Forestry Corps. By May 1916 the first of over 70 logging camps had been set up in Britain. The Corps were to take charge of forestry operations not only in Britain, but in many places of Europe as well. They were also engaged in building airfields, railways, and roads for transport at the battlefront. They were organised in companies each of around 150 men, and would work the timber from felling through to finished product, and in some instances installation.

The German prisoners who were transferred from Strathnethy to Lochbroom in 1918.  
By June 1918 a new company (No. 138) was being put together to establish wood extraction around Lochbroom. At this point the seasoned Canadian Forester Sgt Fred Vipond was put in charge of the operation. He, along with two other sergeants - Charles Haddon and William Hallam were sent north from the depot at Windsor. Fred had enlisted in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in 1915, and was one of the first recruits for the Forestry Corps when they were being formed. He had been given the rank of sergeant and ‘Woods Foreman’ and had worked and organised production at Great Windsor the ‘Base Camp’ and main clearing station of the entire Corps.

Fred Viponds’s Recruitment Papers dated May 1915

Fred himself recorded his memory of the work of the Canadian Foresters. This includes the events surrounding the setting up and short-lived operation of the Braemore Camp in 1918-19.
 
“...landed at Loch Broom....it was a big hunting estate, hundreds of deer on it, a big manor house and several hunting cabins. The timber was on a steep and rocky hill about 1 mile by 4 miles in area. The trees had all been hand planted 50 years before. We made our camp buildings of small culled timber while living in tents. Then they brought in 150 POW’s for extra labor. They lived in our tents while they built their camp of good lumber sawn on the spot by two portable sawmills.”

A CFC camp in the Scottish Highlands in 1918

The use of prisoners entailed the construction of a special camp to house them. This would have had a double wire perimeter fence about 3m high. It would enclose the buildings where the prisoners were held when not at work in the woods, sawmill or other tasks. The prisoners themselves would construct the required elements for the camp.  It seems that the camp at Braemore was still in the process of being set up when a ‘flu epidemic sweeping Europe in the wake of the war struck with tragic results in 1919 for the interned Germans.

“We were busy building a big sawmill and roads and a long dock in the Loch where the ships would load with lumber. About the first of February the flu hit the POW camp, work crews from the compound grew smaller each day.....the command....decided to withdraw all Canadians from the woods and mill work. But one NCO and the saw filler must stay on. I was the N.C.O......however this arrangement did not last long.....soon one morning there were only 25 men showed up, so I shut down the works and sent them back to their quarters. About this time the Germans started to die.....8 of them died..”.

A rather unedifying dispute arose as to where the German soldiers were to be buried. The burial ground at Foich which was close by and part of the Braemore Estate was an obvious place for the funerals to take place. A request from the Canadians for this to be permitted was made to the estate owner. However, Montague Fowler refused to permit this to be done. Two of his nephews had been killed fighting in France in 1915 which may partly explain his stance. Then there followed an approach to the authorities (the Parish Council) in Ullapool to allow burial in one of the two graveyards at Mill Street, or that on West Argyle Street.  However, this was met with an emphatic “no”. The War Office then suggested burial at sea (in Loch Broom), however it appears the fishing community now voiced objections to that happening. Whether this was from fear of contagion or other reasons is not clear. It seems that after more negotiation the dead POWs were then allowed to be buried on the site of the camp where they had lived and died. The site of the camp was on the south end of Loch Broom on the east side of the river below Foich. People living locally can still point out the spot, now marked by a circular stance of trees where the internments took place.

View looking towards part of the site occupied by the Braemore Camp.

Fred himself was not immune from the deadly virus. Barely a week after the Germans had finally been buried he was granted a week-end pass to Inverness. However he never saw much of the city. On arrival he was already suffering badly with all the symptoms of ‘Spanish influenza’. And some acquaintances looked after him that night. Next day he found himself in the military hospital. He was to remain there for a week, then was transferred south to the Canadian Hospital at Epsom, and spent the next three weeks convalescing. This marked the beginning of his demobilisation, and after a move first to the ‘Base Camp’ at Windsor, then a further ten days at Rhyle in North Wales he finally was sent to Southampton for passage aboard the RMS Celtic for Halifax in Nova Scotia. Then he was faced with a transcontinental train journey to Revelstoke in British Columbia where he was surprised to be greeted by his mother. He received his discharge papers there and now a ‘civilian’ for the first time in over four years, he made his way to Nakusp and home.

RMS Celtic the ship that took Fred Vipond home to Canada

We would like to thank Muren Schachter for allowing us access to the memoirs of Fred Vipond and for information and help.