Experiencing Camp Hughes: A World War I Training Site

Shayne Thiessen

Whenever I imagine the iconic moments of World War I, my mind wonders across the Atlantic Ocean over to muddy European battlegrounds. My first thought is about the Battle of Vimy Ridge, where 4000 Canadian and British soldiers lost their lives fighting against the German Empire. This was the first time in Canadian history that all four divisions of Canada’s military fought together. Decades later, this battle became known as the moment where Canadian national identity was born.

While World War I was fought overseas, the Canadian military was trained here at home. When the Great War started, the Canadian military began building imitations of the European battlegrounds at their military camps in Canada. One of these sites was constructed in Manitoba. It was named Camp Hughes after Major-General Sir Sam Hughes.

Camp Hughes is located approximately halfway between the town of Carberry and the city of Brandon. This location was chosen because of its open prairie landscape, and its close proximity to the railway. The railway is still in use today.

Camp Hughes was initially established in 1909. Its defining feature is its World War 1 trench system. The trench system was built during 1915 and 1916. While the trench system is very eroded, they are surprisingly still intact, even after more than a century of being exposed to the elements. They are the only World War I style trench system remaining in North America.

The trenches cut through the prairie landscape like a winding river. Walking through them gave me a small glimpse into the past. The overcast sky, and strong prairie wind lent itself nicely to the experience.

I followed the trenches for quite a while. Eventually I came across the remains of a barricade. The barricade was made from two wooden poles, with a crosspiece connecting them. It was then wrapped in barbed wire. It’s definitely not something you would want to get entangled in. The viscous metal points would leave you with blood and scars.

After leaving the barricade, I continued along the trench line. It wound back and forth through the field, eventually coming to a tree line. Here I found the remains of a Chevrolet. It was upside down and smashed up. I wondered if it had been used as target practice, or perhaps hit with a grenade.

As it turns out, not far from here, there was actually several grenade pits. They were round bowl like gouges carved into the terrain.

Further along the trenches, I found something that made me jump. As I was walking through the trenches a white object caught my eye. Sticking out of the sandy terrain and through the grass was a hard rock like substance. I had found bones!

Thankfully, they weren’t human remains, but instead belonged to cattle. This area was scattered with them. They were both buried in the trenches and littered amongst the trees.

After leaving this area I walked towards the cemetery. The cemetery has a V shaped arch at its entrance with the words “In everlasting memory of those who served and died for king and country in the first Great War. Their name liveth for evermore.”

As the cemetary entrance suggests, the cemetery did indeed contain soldiers that lost their lives. Some of the tombstones had names and dates, others simply stated “unknown grave.” Later research determined that six of the graves contained soldiers who were killed during military exercises at the site. I found this to be incredibly tragic, but what I found to be the most shocking was that some of the graves contained the names, birth dates and death years of young children.

Besides the trenches, there wasn’t much left of Camp Hughes from its glory days. The site was decommissioned in 1934 and the troops here were moved to nearby Camp Shilo. At its peak, Camp Hughes was so large that it was bigger than every city in Manitoba, except Winnipeg.

In the early 1960s, during the Cold War, Camp Hughes was reopened again. A bunker and transmitter station was built on the site. Once the Cold War ended the site was no longer needed. By 1992 the bunker and transmitter station were closed and demolished.

In 1994 Camp Hughes was designated a Provincial Heritage Site by the Manitoba Government. In 2011, the site was designated a National Historic Site.

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