The Railway Tycoon

Brigadier General Jack Stewart, D.S.O.
239th (Railway Construction) Battalion


Stewart ran up railways with a rapidity that astounded the authorities… If I had been Prime Minister, he would have found a seat in the British House of Peers, the only recognition adequate to his vast services to the Empire in her worst hour of peril.

(T.P. O’Connor- Irish-Nationalist MP for Liverpool Scotland)

Responding to the critical Allied need for rail support in France, the Canadian government authorized the creation of several battalions designated for railway construction. In May 1916, noted Vancouver railway builder, John William Stewart began recruiting for the 239th Battalion. Born on 12 December 1865 in Sutherland, Scotland, Stewart moved to Canada in 1882. Rising from a poor immigrant labourer, Stewart became a very successful railway manger and contractor in western Canada and Montana.

CRT_COAlthough not an active member of the militia, he had also helped to organize and finance the 72nd (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada) Battalion from Vancouver. Before the 239th departed Canada in March 1917, Stewart was promoted to brigadier general and tasked with directing railway construction in France.

In his absence, command of the 239th fell to Major James Brodie Lauder Macdonald, a fellow Scotsman member of the 72nd Regiment. Prior to the war, he had been a railway contractor in one of Stewart’s firms. Upon arriving in England, the 239th was re-designated the 3rd Battalion, under Macdonald’s command, as part of Brigadier General Stewart’s Canadian Railway Troops (C.R.T).

Due to Stewart’s success in quickly constructing light railways for troop transportation, by 1918 he commanded all British and Canadian railway units in France. When he completed a track in four days that British engineers had estimated would take six weeks, Prime Minister Borden and members of Parliament celebrated Stewart as a symbol of Canadian ingenuity and resolve. When he died on 25 September 1938 at the age of seventy-five, newspaper obituaries hailed the general as “one of the men who really helped to win the Great War.”


Photo: Top- General Stewart
Bottom- Canadian Railway Troops laying track in shelled area. September, 1917, LAC, MIKAN: 3405539

Stewart, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9318 – 54
Macdonald, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 6733 – 8


2 thoughts on “The Railway Tycoon

  1. Anybody know the actual date STEWART was appointed Deputy Director Light Rail. GEDDES had been talking to Lt. Col. FEWTRELL 4th Australian Pioneer Battalion about the position in October 1916 at a conference at MONTHOUIS, FRANCE. Gen. BIRDWOOD 1st ANZAC Corps blocked the move and appointed FEWTRELL to 1st ANZAC Light Rail. FEWTRELL then utilized his 4th Pioneers as a railway construction battalion between December 1916 – May 1917. Writing a history of 4th Pioneers called “Unsung Heroes of No Man’s Land”, Any additional information about STEWART will be gratefully accepted.

  2. Pingback: 13th Battalion CRT | Units | Great War | CEFRG

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