The Burned Area

Note: Most of the content of this article comes from "TWENTIETH ENGINEERS -- FRANCE -- 1917-1918-1919"

A natural consequence of the Armistice was the feeling that sailing orders were sure to come soon to the camps of the Twentieth Engineers, and many were the preparations—innocently hopeful preparations—for an early departure. Barrack bags were overhauled; surplus clothing turned in at the supply window; ringmaking took on a final spurt; and many a man wrote home to stop sending letters to him in France. Everybody was wondering what the delouser was like; what stuff would be barred from their baggage on the ship; and whether the guys that won the M. P.' S—still infested the home towns. Projects in the woods were hurried to completion, the activity excelling anything on record except the feverish haste before the big offensives. It was noised about that the outfits would go home in the order they had come over, which meant at intervals of about weeks. And in some cases the men were led to believe that a certain date, a few weeks ahead, was to be The Day for them. The old Tenth Engineers were going, it was said, about the first of 1919 and of course the rest would follow very soon. Of course! In response to a telegram from Bordeaux three weeks after the Armistice, one company reported that it would be ready December 18th. It was; but it sailed for home half a year after the Armistice.

The worst was yet to come. The extensive road repair program was launched, with the Regiment included in the plans, and the Burned Area was added to the list of final jobs which were noted in a wet blanket letter distributed gratis among the camps by the Section Forestry Officer. The letter came to be known as "The Knees of the Gods," and we came in time to realize that the exuberant and over-confident Twentieth Engineers of the days just following the Armistice were upon the knees of the military gods and were being mauled with a field shoe. The shoe had hobs in it, and each individual nail could be labelled al with such words as "post armistice construction,'' "disappointment,'' ''road rock," "departure of the old Tenth," and "Burned Area." Verily, we were a bitter crowd in those days, but the blame is found in the phrase, C'est la Guerre.

In December, 1918, the erstwhile stationary detachments of the Regiment began to move to other operations. Men had to go to the old Tenth camps, and as the outfits moved into the Big Burn their places often had to be taken by the transfer of other troops. And so the companies milled around, never knowing what the morn would bring forth. The Burned Area operation took definite form and company after company wallowed around there in the rain and mud, with guards to keep the men in the Area. About a million troops up north were drilling and playing ball, and it seemed as though the high authorities of the S. O. S., the men who had the power to start this large new operation after the war was over, could have mustered enough labor from the hundreds of thousands marking time to have cleaned up the Burn in 60 days. But no; the natives had set the fire; hundreds of available forest troops had not been used in fighting it; and it was therefore logical to compel the hard working Twentieth, a two - chevron organization, to work there six months, was it not? It was not. Not at all logical, and not at all an act of kindness to a regiment that had never failed to do more than was expected of it, but the following historical sketch by Major Swift Berry shows the operation to have been considered as a military necessity and essential to the strategy of finance and liaison that marked the Regiment's withdrawal from France.


During August, 1918, the Forest Section was actively pressing the French for more timber because additional forestry troops were being raised in the United States. The officer in charge of the location, acquisition, and measurement of all stumpage for the Twentieth Engineers in the Dax, Captieux, Pontenx, and Mimizan Districts was called to Headquarters and directed to secure enough additional timber for l2 and possibly 15 more companies in the Landes region.

The area in the communes of Pontenx and Lue and Parentis was burned about September 4 and 5, 1918. Some 30,000 or 40,000 of the trees burned at that time had previously been purchased and paid for by the A. E. F. for the operation at Bourricos, and possibly twice that many on the other side of the fire area had been similarly purchased for the Canadians. On the day after the fire the French military authorities wired to enquire what portion of the burn the A. E. F. would purchase and they requested that further purchase of green timber be held up until the burn was examined. The fire killed trees were offered at a price of about 70% of that for green timber. Accordingly the area was examined; a line agreed upon between the Canadians and the A. E. F. giving about 50% to each; and the French authorities were informed that the A. E. F. would take all of its portion of the tract having timber large enough to make ties. The tracts answering this requirement were examined on ground with representatives of the French Engineers and they were designated on maps. Pressure was brought by the French military authorities to have us purchase the extensive area smaller trees for mine props, but we objected and they did not insist. The purchase of the burned area was at the time a piece of business for the A. E. F. for these reasons: The burned timber was as good for early cutting as the green; we need a large amount of timber immediately; the price was reasonable and our good faith in taking the fire killed timber made French authorities very willing to continue requisitioning timber for us.

Consequently, by September 10th or 15th, the French officials had notified the owners of all the tracts selected by us that they could not sell on the open market and that these tracts were requisitioned for the A. E. F. Under the French military law the deal was to all intents closed at that time (two months before Armistice) and according to agreements between the two Armies and the A. E. F. was responsible for the timber from the time it agreed to take the tracts, which was done by letter in the usual manner. There remained only the measurement of the trees and the signing of the formal contracts between the owners and the French officials. The measurements all took place before November 1st and some of the contracts were signed before the Armistice some after. But the A. E. F. was really in possession of the tracts two months before the Armistice.

On November 11th, the A. E. F. had on its hands in the Landes enough timber to supply the companies operating there, and 17 additional companies, until June, 1919. It was also obligated under contract to clean up the tops and limbs in the Mimizan district, and to do various other cleaning up jobs. Naturally the object was to close up with as little money loss and work as possible and negotiations were opened with French headquarters to this end. The French decision was that they badly needed timber for reconstruction; that they had not enough labor to cut it with; that, unless cut the coming winter, the burned timber would spoil; and that they would not release the A. E. F. from responsibility for the burned timber. They asked that as long as the U. S. Forestry troops were kept in France they be used in working up the Pontenx and Captieux burns. They agreed to pay market prices for the lumber produced and to relieve the A. E. F. of loss on the green timber purchased for it and no longer required and of cleaning up in the Mimizan dunes and elsewhere.

Therefore, in order to reduce work and money obligations elsewhere; to save the economic loss of the burned timber; and to aid the French to some extent in reconstruction; the Headquarters of the S. Q. S. agreed with the French to rush mill construction in the burned areas, and to do what work was possible in manufacturing the timber, until it came time for each battalion to sail.

In judging the results of this decision conditions should be considered as they were then. The equipment used was in France and would have been sold to the French anyway at the same price. The cost of the construction incident to the burned area operations was only a fraction of what the loss would have been if we had been forced to sell the fire killed timber on the open market, and also the green timber, all of which green timber was taken back by the French Government with no loss to the A. E. F. The French were furnished some material for reconstruction though not as much as had been hoped. And none of the battalions that worked in the burn was delayed in sailing because of that fact. If they had not been there they would have been of necessity, put at other work and would have taken their turn at embarkation just the same. This is proven by the fact that the first outfit released from the burn had to do a month's work near Brest, although its standing for embarkation was high.

The feeling of headquarters was that by having the men work in the burned areas they could be more comfortably housed; they would be doing the work that they came to France for and that they liked; they would not be scattered all over France on road repair work and other assignments under commanders who had no particular interest in them; and they would together, with the best chance for early embarkation priority. Genuine hard luck was met with in regard to weather conditions. During the winter of 1917-1918 the weather had been such that work could have been done with comfort in the Pontenx-Lue burned area, whereas the winter of 1918 was one of exceptional rain.

On the whole, the burned area operation cannot reasonably be considered a failure or an imposition. Had the men known the whole facts at the time their feeling would have been different, and had the weather been normal working in the burn until home-going orders came would have been better. The headquarters of the S. O. S. gave the word to start, and inasmuch as those involved were men of high rank and wide experience, with better jobs awaiting most of them in the States, the work was not undertaken to continue anyone in jobs in France. There was no idea of reward from the French involved, but of course there was a very natural tendency to play square with the French, whose cooperation in requisitioning timber for the Americans made it possible for the Twentieth Engineers to hand up an enviable record in supplying the A. E. F. with lumber. Efforts were made to get the original owners to take back the burned timber after the Armistice, but most of them refused to take back the dead timber at any price as they were in no position to cut it before it would spoil in June. Two very considerable areas were however, taken back by the owners.

Standard gauge railroad two miles in length connected the Burn with the French mail line. In the burned tract the railroad branched three ways, with double loading tracks 1,300 feet long, twin mills and a camp at the end of each branch. As operations came to a close in other parts of France, material that no one needed was sent to the Pontenx Burn and at one time 75 cars of engineer material was waiting to be unloaded. The operation considered as a unit has been called the largest lumber plant ever constructed in Europe.

As time went on the activities and administration of the Regiment centered more and more around the Pontenx District. In April seventeen companies, two battalion headquarters, medical detachments and a bakery detachment were included in the district, most of these troops being in the Burn. Nearly every battalion at some time was represented in the Burned Area. Regimental Headquarters passed through Pontenx late in June and about a dozen men were still clinging to duty there in August.