By Derek Gagnon
One of the last trench systems of the First World War lies mostly untouched, but for the work of time that has made the trenches that zig zag across the ground into little more than ruts in places.
Gone are the sandbags, the guns and the men who once called this place home for extended periods.
Located in Manitoba, not far from Highway #1, Camp Hughes was in its time a hub of activity for Canadian soldiers prepping to go overseas to participate in the Great War. Now it serves as the last First World War training trench system in North America..
A complex system of trenches, meant to emulate those used on the Western Front, in Europe, were dug on the prairie just north of the present Canadian Forces Base Shilo. The name honours Canada’s onetime minister of militia and defence, Major General Sir Samuel Hughes.
In 1909 the federal government under then prime minister Wilfred Laurier, decided to build a training site in military district 10 for Manitoba and Saskatchewan, choosing a site near the Spruce Woods Forest Reserve.
The first summer training camp was held in 1910, and 1,469 militia soldiers trained at Camp Sewell, as it was known during this period. With the outbreak of war came rapid growth, and by 1916, prime minister Robert Borden had promised that the Canada’s expeditionary force would number 500,000 strong.
At its height, there were 27,754 troops training at the facility, making Camp Hughes the second largest community in Manitoba, after Winnipeg.
As the number of soldiers swelled, permanent buildings were erected; a 2,000-yard-long rifle range and trenches were built in 1915 and 1916. At its prime, the camp had stores, a hospital, a large heated in-ground pool and everything needed to maintain a large population. It even boasted six movie theatres, the remains of which are visible, as concrete motor mounts for the projectors are still on site.
The trenches were built to replicate the scale and quality that a battalion could expect when fighting in France. There were front lines, communications, travelling, support fire and reserve trenches. Across from them on higher ground, through a no-man’s-land of sorts, lay enemy trenches. Trenches were also constructed for the purposes of bombing and grenade training.
Volunteer numbers for the war fell steeply in 1917 and 1918, in the wake of horrific casualty numbers overseas, leading to the suspension of training at Camp Hughes. Training resumed for militia units in the 1920s, but with Canada’s regular army numbering just 3,416 by 1926, the need for such camps dwindled.
The department of national defence, formed in 1925, decided that the geographical restrictions that prevented further expansion of Camp Hughes meant they would need to build a new training ground. Canadian Forces Base Shilo was constructed between 1933 and 1936 and the Camp Hughes buildings were dismantled.
The site continues to suffer from long periods of neglect, so that the trench system has slowly faded away. Cattle farmers have used the ground as grazing pasture, and the camp area was named a provincial heritage site in 1993.