Forests, the wood and the seeds they produced, figured greatly on the battle fronts of the Great War (1914-18).
As Anzac Day April 25 celebrations get under way today on both sides of the Tasman, we remember, respect, salute and commemorate members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who served and died in the Gallipoli campaign, the first engagement in the ‘First War’.
It is also a National Day of Remembrance that broadly commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders “who served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations” and “the contribution and suffering of all those who have served”.
Keith McDowell’s story
When the guns fell silent after the bloody combat of Lone Pine, an Australian soldier Keith McDowell crawled from the trenches onto the battlefield to collect a pinecone. It was a fragment of the solitary pine (Pinus brutia), growing high on a plateau on the Gallipoli Peninsula, that gave its name to the 1915 battle.
After four days of desperate hand-to-hand fighting, the Allies had a rare win, but it came at the cost of more than 2000 Australian lives and perhaps as many as 6000 Turkish casualties.
Years later the memento would become a living legacy of the Lone Pine conflict and a symbol of remembrance and reconciliation between two once-warring nations.
When Keith McDowell was shipped from Gallipoli to the Western Front, he carried his pinecone as a souvenir in his haversack for several years. He gave little thought to the pinecone until one day his wife mentioned her aunt at Warrnambool was a keen gardener.
The first of the seedlings was planted at a ceremony at Wattle Park, Melbourne in May 1933. The others were planted at Warrnambool’s Botanic Gardens, the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and at The Sisters, near Terang in south-west Victoria.
Two trees died but were replaced with later generations grown from the Warrnambool tree, a Turkish red pine (Pinus brutia), native to the Gallipoli Peninsula and notoriously difficult to grow.
Returning ‘diggers’ brought pinecones back from the front
At least two other soldiers brought home pinecones from Gallipoli that were used to propagate seedlings. These were Aleppo pines (Pinus halepensis) thought to have grown from cones attached to imported timber used to wall the Turkish trenches at the battle of Lone Pine.
Logs and branches of Aleppo pine which grows naturally in Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Syria and Morocco, were brought to Gallipoli from plantations beyond the Dardanelles and used to roof the Turkish trenches and dugouts.
Propagating seeds from the ‘mother tree’ to create a new generation of commemorative trees has been an enormous community commitment.
Retired doctor and skilled rose grower David Shimmin succeeded in striking four pine seedlings, one of which stands in the grounds of the Port Fairy Primary School.
Pinus brutia, a native to the Gallipoli Peninsula, grew across the hills of the battlefield. All the trees except the famous Loan Pine were cut down by the Turks to construct their trenches.
The role of wood in the Great War
At the beginning of the war, the UK War Office drew upon significant volumes of wood sourced from Sweden, Russia, Canada, and the United States, a custom harking back to the period of the Napoleonic Wars.
In the latter part of 1915, the Royal Engineers established a forestry division to manage the utilization of domestically produced wood. Soon after, they gained permission to use forests in France, primarily consisting of beech (Forêt d’Eu) and Scots pine trees.
As the forces entrenched along the Western Front, the need for wood drastically increased, causing nearby forests and wooded areas to be quickly exhausted.
Meanwhile, in the trenches … wood preserved after more than 100 years!
Wood scientists testing timbers used in the building of trenches and underground bunkers in Europe during World War 1 (1914-18) found them to be well preserved after more than 100 years below groundwater level.
Particularly, studies by the International Research Group on Wood Protection in Stockholm, Sweden, have focused on researching timbers that were submerged below groundwater levels.
Wood in such conditions is not degraded by basidiomycota fungi or a lack of oxygen. Nonetheless timbers were exposed to circumstances similar to those classified as Use Class 4 in the European Standard (EN 335:2013).
The research indicates that soft rot damage may have occurred during the conflict, or probably later, due to heightened moisture levels and occasional waterlogging. Similarly, wooden foundations under historical buildings have been primarily affected or threatened by bacterial degradation.
Bacterial decay is, however, a very slow process, affecting the overall mechanical performance of poles and beams to a limited extent.
Timber degradation is influenced by water flow
The IRG research indicated that soil characteristics and water flow could be factors in the degree of degradation. Nevertheless, over a 100-year period, foundation poles exhibited bacterial decay, usually confined to within 20mm of the circumference.
While wooden structures stayed intact, the majority of metal beams and connectors showed considerable deterioration.
Groundwater levels have consistently been high for most underground structures built during the war. The decay analysis identified bacterial properties, but no evidence of soft rot or basidiomycete decay was found in any samples.
Timber supply and forestry battalions during the Great War
In 1917, within French forests alone, the British government supported two forestry battalions, consisting of about 2,200 men. Additionally, 56 companies of the Canadian Forestry Corps and 13,000 unskilled laborers, mainly from the Chinese Labour Corps, Indian troops, and German prisoners of war, were present.
Imported ready-sawn timber came from Britain, the Baltic, America, and Canada. Between April 1917 and November 1918, over a million tonnes of timber were sent to various frontlines.
Interestingly, an examination of beams in the Zonnebeke Church dugout, located in West Flanders, Belgium, revealed Jack pine (Pinus banksiana) primarily originating from eastern Canada. This finding suggests that timber continued to be transported across the Atlantic in 1917.
However, during that period, most of the timber was sourced from French forests due to increased danger from German submarines in the North Sea, making overseas navigation risky.
Beams used during this time typically measured 9×3 inches and were placed flat and close together. This limited spacing improved their ability to resist snapping from clay pressure and reduced excessive bowing. By July 1916, the British had established standardized interior dimensions.