Camp Hughes: Manitoba’s forgotten military base

One of the last trench systems of World War 1 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 some places.

Gone are the sandbags, the guns and the men who once called this place home for extended periods of time.

This place is in Manitoba, not far from Highway 1.

From Google Maps
From Google Maps

In its prime, Camp Hughes was a hub of activity for Canadian soldiers prepping to go overseas to partake in the Great War that raged in Europe from 1914 to 1918. 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, was dug in the prairie just to the north of where Canadian Forces Base Shilo presently sits. The name was originally Camp Sewell, but the name was changed to honour Canada’s Minister of Militia and Defence, Major General Sir Samuel Hughes.

Military History Society of Manitoba, Archival Collection
Camp Hughes trenches, circa 1916. Military History Society of Manitoba, Archival Collection

The History of Hughes
In 1909, the federal government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, decided on building a training site in Military District 10, for Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The site chosen was near the Spruce Woods Forest Reserve, due to its accessibility from both rail lines.

The first summer training at the camp occurred in 1910, and 1,469 militia soldiers trained at the camp, which was known as Camp Sewell at this time, named after a nearby rail siding.

With the outbreak of war came rapid growth and expansion. In 1915, the camp was renamed to Camp Hughes. By 1916, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden had promised that the Canadian Expeditionary Force would number 500,000 strong. To do this, camps had to be expanded and permanent buildings were erected, a 2000 yard long rifle range and trenches were built in 1915 and 1916 as the amount of soldiers swelled into the thousands. At its prime the camp had stores, a hospital, a large heated in ground pool, and all the necessities of maintaining a large population. It even boasted six movie theatres, the remains of which can still be seen as the concrete blocks used as motor mounts for the projectors still remain on site. The soldiers were housed around the central camp in tents.
The trenches were built to replicate the scale and quality that a battalion could expect when fighting in France. There were front line, 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 or the purposes of trench bombing and grenade training.

Volunteer number for the war fell steeply in 1917 and 1918 thanks in part to horrific casualty numbers, which caused 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, which formed in 1925, decided that the geographical restrictions that prevented further expansion of Camp Hughes meant that they would build a new training ground further south. What is now known as Canadian Forces Base Shilo was constructed between 1933 and 1936. At the same time, the buildings of Camp Hughes were dismantled.

Threat of time and neglect
It is estimated that the Canadian War Memorials at Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel in France represent roughly three-quarters of all authentic World War 1 battlefield terrain remaining in the world. Because of their scarcity, efforts are made in order to preserve these places. However, Camp Hughes suffered and continues to suffer from long periods of neglect, which has allowed the trench systems to slowly fade away in some spots.

Cattle bone and excrement in the trenches. Photo by Derek Gagnon
Cattle bone and excrement in the trenches. Photo by Derek Gagnon
Rusted remains of Chevrolet Truck the biggest example of illegal dumping at Camp Hughes. Photo by Derek Gagnon
Rusted remains of Chevrolet Truck the biggest example of illegal dumping at Camp Hughes. Photo by Derek Gagnon

Cattle farmers have used the ground as grazing pasture. There are old corrals on the grounds, evidence of dumping all over the place, and even an old upside down Chevrolet Truck in one of the trenches. The site was named a provincial heritage site in 1993, but that has not stopped people from using metal detectors to do unauthorized digs that further compromise the integrity of the site.

The graves of Privates Smith, Kendall, Barringer, Messenger, Davidson and Kendall in the Camp Hughes Cemetery
The graves of Privates Smith, Kendall, Barringer, Messenger, Davidson and Kendall in the Camp Hughes Cemetery

Camp Hughes Cemetery
Just a short distance from the trench systems lays the Camp Hughes Cemetery. Here lie the graves of six soldiers that died while training at Camp Hughes during 1916. Other soldiers died at Camp Hughes during the war, but their families chose to have their bodies returned. The causes of death for the soldiers include pneumonia, meningitis, erysipelas, alcoholism and “sickness”. At this time, there were 27,754 troops being trained, making it the second largest community in Manitoba, with Winnipeg being the largest.

Camp Hughes Today
Parts of Camp Hughes are visitable by the general public, and the Military Historical Society of Manitoba has a brochure on their website for self-guided tours. There is also an annual Camp Hughes Heritage Day, in which the Friends of Camp Hughes have displays of artifacts, equipment and host tours.Hundreds gathered on the site on Sunday, July 24 to celebrate the site’s naming as a national historic site. The designation occurred in 2012, but celebrations were delayed until 2016 to commemorate the centennial of Camp Hughes’ busiest year.

References: Military History Society of Manitoba, Canadian Virtual War Memorial, Manitoba Historical Society, Camp Hughes Under Threat: The Degradation of a Canadian Archaeological Heirloom and Action Plan for Protection by William R. Galbraith (2004)

2 thoughts on “Camp Hughes: Manitoba’s forgotten military base”

  1. I have an old photo from camp Hughes with soldiers lined up in the 1920s or 30s. Its an old photograph rolled up with cracks. Always wondered whos grandfather may be in the picture.

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