A Day in the Life of a POW Woodcutter

As of April 1946, almost 9,000 German combatant POWs, Enemy Merchant Seamen (EMS), and Civilian Internees were employed in logging and pulpwood operations in Ontario alone. And hundreds, if not thousands, more had spent some time in a bush camp between July 1943 and July 1946. The majority of these bush camps were operated by large pulp and paper companies, including Abitibi Power & Paper Co., Ontario-Minnesota Pulp & Paper Co., Great Lakes Paper Co., Nipigon Lake Timber Co., and Pulpwood Supply Co., who hired POWs under an agreement with the federal Department of Labour. Prisoners were transferred from larger internment camps like Camp 132 at Medicine Hat or Camp 133 at Lethbridge to these remote areas where they were expected to cut pulpwood for $0.50 a day.

Although bush work came with its perks – namely living in relative freedom due to the absence of barbed wire fences and guard towers – it was difficult work. One POW, known only by his initials, “E.F. Sch,” documented life in an Ontario bush camps in a series of eighteen cartoons. While his identity is unknown, E.F. Sch. likely worked for the Pigeon Timber Co. in one of the company’s bush camps north of Neys, Ontario.

I’ve included all eighteen cartoons below (click on the images for larger views) with brief descriptions for further context. If you can improve on any translations, please comment below!

1. Zur Arbeit! – To Work!
After an early morning breakfast in camp, POWs set off to work. Most POWs, like the one shown here, walked to the work site from the camp carrying their tools – a “Swede saw” and axe – and a lunch prepared by the camp cooks (in the black lunchbox). Uniforms were provided by the Department of Labour and, as seen, featured a prominent red stripe on the cap, a large circle on the back of the jacket, and a red stripe down the right pant leg (not visible).

2. Aller Anfang Ist Schwer! – Every Beginning is Difficult!
POWs new to the bush first received instruction from a Canadian civilian woodcutter to ensure safe and effective cutting practices. The POW here is demonstrating the proper technique: he first makes an undercut with his axe (the notch on the right side of the tree) before making a horizontal felling cut with his saw. Note the lunch box hanging from a nearby tree.

3. Und Der Schweiss Rinnt! – And the Sweat is Pouring!
Once the tree was down, the POWs removed the branches (bucking) and cut the logs in four- or eight-foot lengths depending on the operation. Unlike seasonal civilian cutters who did not work in the summer, POWs worked in the bush year-round regardless of the temperature or insects. Unsurprisingly, the primary complaints from POWs working in the bush focused on oppressive heat and plagues of blackflies and mosquitoes.

4. Au… Mein Kreuz! – Ouch… My Back!
Bucked and cut into eight-foot lengths, logs were then stacked into piles along the roadside. As POWs had a daily quota of cutting and stacking one cord, these piles allowed POWs to measure their day’s work. The piles were hauled back to the camp or to a nearby lake or river by a horse team during the hauling season.

5. Schach-Matt! – Checkmate!
Woodcutting was difficult work, especially for POWs who had already spent years of relative idleness in an internment camp. But work offered priosners an opportunity for exercise – which some enjoyed while others were not so keen – with the added benefit of living and working in relative freedom.

6. Auch Das Noch! – That Too!
At midday, POWs took a short lunch break. As the worksite could be up to an hour walk from the camp, meals were prepared by the camp cooks beforehand and the POWs brought their lunches with them. Those new to bush work often left their lunches unattended but they soon learned that the local wildlife, namely black bears, would seize upon any opportunity for a free meal.

7. Das Alte Lied Der Sau… Weg! – The Old Song of the Sow… Gone!
While bears presented little threat to those working in the bush, attitudes towards bears varied from camp to camp. As I’ve discussed previously, most POWs had a fascination with black bears and seized opportunities to adopt bear cubs as camp mascots. Guards and civilian staff, however, generally viewed bears as nuisances, especially when they got accustomed to camp garbage, and often shot them.

8. One Cord!
Having cut their daily quota, the prisoner returned to the camp. Here a POW reports his daily cut – one cord (4’x4’x8’) – to the camp office. As POWs occasionally exaggerated their numbers, civilian staff or guards frequently confirmed counts. But there was incentive to cut a full quota as receiving the $0.50 daily wage generally remained dependent on whether a prisoner met their daily quota.

9. Endlich – Wieder Frisch! – Finally – Fresh Again!
After a day in a bush, a shower or bath was most welcome – and surely needed! As bush camps of the 1940s generally did not have running water, saunas, transplanted by the large Finnish population employed in Northern Ontario, were the preferred method of of bathing. In the summer, POWs could also take advantage of camps’ proximity to lakes and rivers.

10. So Ist Halt Das Leben! – That’s How Life Is!
Having cleaned themselves of the day’s sweat and grime, the POWs changed into clean clothes and got ready for their evening meal.

11. [No Caption]
It is an unwritten rule that there is no talking during meals in a bush camp. It it is therefore no coincidence the artist omitted a caption to imply silence. As bush work consumed significant calories, feeding bush workers was no mere task and companies had to ensure their workers were well fed. What bush meals may have lacked in variety and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables, they made up with their quantity. Few, if any, POWs ever went to bed hungry while working in the bush.

12. Endlich Mal Wieder Satt Geworden! – Finally Got Enough to Eat!
After supper, prisoners were free to do as they pleased – within reason. Those who preferred to remain in camp could read a book, write a letter home, work on correspondence courses, listen to music, or play with their dog.

13. Auf Zur Bootfahrt! – Off to Boating!
Other prisoners spent their free time taking advantage of their surroundings, busying themselves with hiking, exploring their surroundings, swimming, or even boating. As the logging industry heavily relied on lakes and rivers to move logs from the bush to the mills, bush camps were generally located alongside the water and many POWs took advantage of this.

14. Hals und Beinbruch! – Break a Leg!
Some companies provided POWs with small rowboats or sailboats for recreation but most POW watercraft were built by hand. Dugout canoes proved especially popular and, despite their instability, these vessels were widely used in bush camps in Manitoba and Ontario. Restrictions on boat use later came into effect after a number of POW drownings in Ontario in 1944.

15. Moose!
Wildlife viewing was also a popular activity. As most prisoners grew up on stories of the “Frontier” and Wild West,” they came to Canada expecting to live out their own version of the adventure stories they had read as boys. Bush work offered some sense of adventure and unprecedented contact with the natural environment.

16. Sooooon Moose – Mensch Du Schwindelst! – Such a Moose – You’re a Liar!
Now back ashore, a POW describes his recent moose sighting to a comrade. The latter, however, remains skeptical either of the sighting itself or perhaps of how large the animal was claimed to be.
Thanks to Bernie for helping with translating this caption.

17. Wasser Ablassen! – Drain the Water
As the sun goes down, the POWs get ready for lights out. This POW has already changed into his pyjamas, possibly purchased from mail order catalogues like Eaton’s, and opts not to make the walk to the latrine. Note the logs piled in the background ready to be transported to the mill.

18. Schrecklicher Traum! – Terrible Dream
With lights out, the POWs go to sleep before resuming the work once more tomorrow. But the day is not over for some, like this POW, who is apparently reliving his earlier encounter with a bear. Most bunkhouses housed about fifty POWs and had little to no privacy. Their bunks were their own spaces though and, as seen here, they were permitted to decorate it however they fancied. Pinups and a pocket watch can be seen on the wall, a suitcase for the rest of his belongings under the bed, and his uniform at his feet ready for tomorrow’s work.

If you have more information regarding the identity of the artist “E.F. Sch.,” please get in touch and if you are interested in learning more about life in POW labour projects, check out my dissertation by clicking here.

Published by Michael O'Hagan

Historian studying German Prisoners of War in Canada during the Second World War

One thought on “A Day in the Life of a POW Woodcutter

  1. Amazing to see, thank you. My grandfather was a POW for many years and spoke fondly of his time in the bush. Interesting to see the uniforms they wore.

    My guess for the unclear cartoon is that he is describing the huuuge moose he saw (“soooo ein Moose” = soooon Moose) and the other guy thinks he’s exaggerating/tricking him.

    Thanks for sharing these!

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