Troop Trains: Canada’s Response to War Moves a Nation into the Twentieth Century

Canada’s rail heritage has fingers in a lot more pies than just the immediately-recognized image of pioneers and train robbers. For instance, our old steamers were instrumental in supporting military mobilization since before Canada had a coast-to-coast railway. Troop trains began operating with the advent of the second Northwest Rebellion in 1885. Canada’s militia (Queen’s Own Rifles, and Royal Canadian Regiment) came via rail from Eastern Canada to what is today called Saskatchewan—or at least, most of the way. The rails did not actually reach Saskatchewan; entire chunks along the north shore of Lake Superior were…missing. At the time the conflict broke out, CP was in debt, Construction through the Canadian Shield was slow and difficult at the best of times. By 1885 the rail company was teetering on bankruptcy. However, the uprising spurred MacDonald’s government to provide loan guarantees to the sinking company and a mere six months later, the troops rode the rails home.

When Canada’s men were called up by Great Britain for the Boer war, just over twenty years later, men from all across the country answered the call and were brought to Halifax Harbour by train. And only thirteen years later, the same trek was repeated for World War I.

Canada was fortunate not to be called upon again for another 20 years, and when she sent her men to Europe in 1939, she did so as a nation who determined her own international affairs. Steam locomotives continued to power not only troop and vital supply trains, but prisoner of-war trains as well. Due to the shortage of manpower with so many young men in uniform, many of the locomotives coming out of Montreal Locomotive Works and Canadian Locomotive Company were largely built by women.

Peace did not give Canada a long respite, as in 1950, she sent troops to Vancouver on route to Korea. By the mid 1960s, however, Canada’s troops had shifted their focus to peace keeping and in the past sixty years more and more of our soldiers have traveled by air. Canadian Forces logistics support still uses the railway as it’s primary source for large moves. Canada’s railways are called upon to transport Canadian Forces (CF) military vehicles between major bases at Wainwright AB , Shilo MB, Borden ON, Valcartier QC, Gagetown NB and even Kingston, ON. Armour, mechanized infantry, artillery, engineer and signals units are transported for operations, exercises and embarkation overseas by rail. In addition British Army and German Army military vehicles are transported to training bases at CFB Suffield, Alberta and CFB Shilo, Manitoba from the east coast.

Rails and Tales 2017 would like everyone to remember the role railways have played in sending and returning our soldiers to war. We hope to have some photographic displays of the troops and trains involved in these incredible undertakings as part of our event.

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