Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Week of Remembrance: Canadian Railway Troops in World War One

Canadian Railway Troops working on tracks
near the front line.

It’s the week of remembrance here in Canada—the week leading up to November 11 when Canadians remember those who fought and died in this country’s wars.

Among those who served in World War One were 19,000 men in the Canadian Corps of Railway Troops. These troops were responsible for the laying, repair, maintenance and operation of railway lines in France and Belgium.

While much attention is focused on those who fought in the battles of that war (and deservedly so), less attention has been paid to those who made the fighting possible by making sure that soldiers got the ammunition, food and other supplies they needed to fight the war. Among the most important were the railway troops.

Troops take the train back from the front.

Railway troops came from all parts of Canada, and most had railway experience; the first troops were recruited from the ranks of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which supplied 500 experienced workers. The first of the troops arrived in France in 1915, at the request of the British War Office. The railway troops were still there in 1918 when the Armistice was signed.

During the war, railway troops laid lines on the heels of advances, such as at Vimy Ridge where 60 miles of narrow gauge track was laid. Ammunition was brought up, and casualties taken back. At Cambrai tanks were brought forward via rail; at Canal du Nord 2,000 tons of rations a day were brought to soldiers in the trenches.

Canadian troops and German prisoners send the
wounded back from Vimy on the train.

Altogether, the Canadian Railway Troops laid all of the narrow gauge and 60 percent of the regular gauge tracks on the western front. In 1917-18 alone they laid 1,404 miles of light gauge and 1,169 miles of broad gauge tracks.

Although the conditions were less than ideal, laying and maintaining track on the Western Front was similar to conditions in Canada’s frontier regions (except for people shooting at them, of course). In the Canadian west it was common to build temporary lines and bridges and deal with unusual and unique circumstances and terrain.

Bending rail.

As A. MacDougall noted in a memorandum proposing a Canadian railway unit: “It would seem that the experience thus gained [in Canada] in the operation of lines over temporary structures and with irregular and incomplete roadbed would be in a large measure analogous to conditions likely to be met with in keeping up communication with an army advancing over a country in which the enemy had wrecked existing structures and partially demolished the road bed.”

Although the troops were non-combants, and did not receive military training, many were killed and wounded while laying tracks or repairing lines. Added to the danger was that while regular troops could shelter in trenches, the railway troops worked out in the open where they could be observed by the enemy. A total of 483 Canadian Railway Troops died during the war, while 1,383 were wounded.

Wounded heading back by train. 

Unlike other units, which were maintained as militia units when the war ended, the units that made up the Canadian Railway Troops were disbanded at the war’s end. As a result, their service has largely been forgotten. Forgotten, too, is the important role they played—and the sacrifices they made—in the success of Allied operations on the western front.

Sources: Sinews Of Steel: Canadian Railway Troops On The Western Front, 1914-1918, Major George Jager, CD, and Peter Broznitsky, Canadian Railway Troops. Photos from various sources, including the Canadian War Museum.

Cap badge, 12th battalion,
Canadian Railway Troops


  1. Hi John,

    My mom's father joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force in April 1915, part of the Railway Construction Corps in France and Belgium, before transferring in 1917 to the Cadet School at Bournemouth, England. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Imperial Royal Guards Artillery, serving with the 99th Siege Battery until demobilized in 1919.

    Among his photos is a two-foot narrow-gauge railway bringing up 6 inch and 9.2 inch artillery shells.

    He also commented that townspeople would come to watch the Canadians and their horse teams masterfully grading and scraping roadbed.