Skip to main content

NZ Railways at war

Page 4 – Railwaymen in the NZEF

As the risk of enemy attack at home passed, the men of the Railway Battalions were released to join the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), in which many of their workmates were already enlisting. As many as 5000 New Zealand Railways (NZR) permanent employees are thought to have served overseas during the war, almost 40% of the 1914 workforce; several thousand casual workers also joined up. In 1919 the department reported that a total of 7529 permanent and casual employees had been released for war service.

A 20-year-old head office clerk from Whanganui, Corporal Leslie Andrew of the 2nd Wellington Infantry Battalion, was awarded a Victoria Cross, while his colleagues earned 10 Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCMs), 67 Military Medals and numerous other honours. The price was high: NZR’s death toll of 450 employees was the heaviest loss suffered by any New Zealand employer. The roll of honour published in the department’s 1919 annual report stretched across seven solemn pages.

The majority of those who served overseas did so as infantrymen – 85% of those who died were in infantry regiments – but significant numbers were distributed throughout the NZEF. Twenty-four NZR staff died serving in the Engineers Corps, 16 in the artillery, 13 as machine-gunners, nine as mounted riflemen, eight in the medical services, three with the Pioneer Battalion, two in the Cyclist Corps and one in a New Zealand company of the Imperial Camel Corps.

Samoa, 1914-15

Two specialist New Zealand railway units served overseas. The first was swiftly assembled in August 1914 to take part in the occupation of German Samoa.

The assembling of the 258 officers and men of the Railway Engineers (though they were drawn from all parts of the South as well as the North Island), presented no difficulties, owing to the fact that they were all members of the N.Z. Railway Department and of the well-organised and equipped N.Z. Railway Battalions. Within 24 hours of the call being made for volunteers they paraded in Wellington, completely uniformed, armed and equipped. [1]

On arrival in Samoa they found a narrow-gauge railway running from the jetty at Apia to the German wireless station, a small petrol Telefunken locomotive and some wagons. The Germans had tried to sabotage the locomotive but it was quickly fixed and painted with the letters ‘NZR’, and was in operation the day after the landing. New tracks were laid to connect the main camps and New Zealand engineers assembled a second little locomotive, using an old motor from a launch. ‘A trip to the wireless station by the Apia Express soon became a recognised Sunday outing for the troops on leave.’ [2]

Most of the original Samoan occupation force was withdrawn in April 1915 and its members were distributed throughout the NZEF. More than 30 of the Railway Engineers who served in Samoa subsequently died at Gallipoli or on the Western Front – including their commanding officer, Lieutenant Bert Christophers, a railway draughtsman from Ohakune who was one of four brothers killed during the war.

Flanders, 1917-18

A second specialist unit was formed in January 1917, when the British War Office requested that New Zealand provide a Light Railway Operating Company (LROC) to serve in Flanders, Belgium. This was to be a non-divisional unit of 272 officers and other ranks, with its members recruited from men of the NZEF who were temporarily unfit for front-line duty due to illness or injury; a number of them were former NZR or Public Works Department (PWD) employees.

The 5th (New Zealand) Light Railway Operating Company, or Section as it was often known, was one of 21 British and Dominion LROCs on the Western Front. It was commanded by Captain (later Major) Roger Ingram Dansey, a Rotorua-born civil engineer who had earlier fought with the Maori Contingent at Gallipoli.

Based at Poperinge from late February 1917, the New Zealanders helped operate an extensive light-rail system in the Ypres Salient. This network, which was partly constructed by the Pioneer Battalion and other New Zealand troops, featured ‘stations’ named Auckland, Napier, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, as well as Brisbane, Montreal, Vancouver and so on.

The LROCs operated mainly at night, without running lights, but were still vulnerable to enemy artillery and gas attacks. A 1918 account described a typical night's work for a former NZR engine driver and his fireman. Their task was delivering troops from Dunedin station, near the shattered ruins of Ypres (Ieper), to a point ‘a mile north of Hellfire Corner’ on the Menin Road:

We are now amongst the artillery, and the roar and concussion of the guns close to the lines is somewhat disconcerting – especially when invisible monsters suddenly let go just behind you … We pass in the vicinity of a bloodstained old road, have some lively minutes, as we make a dash at our best speed past a spot where Fritz is shelling rather heavily, and run into a Control Station. The country here is a dreary desolation. It has been shelled until it resembles the scene of a recent volcanic eruption. After a delay of some minutes we learn that the line is blown up ahead, and so we drop troops here. [3]

The railwaymen struggled with equipment shortages, swampy ground and lack of clean water for steam engines; derailments and accidents were common and the New Zealanders – who formed their own 'Breakdown Gang' led by Sergeant F.J. Conlan, a PWD platelayer – became adept at rerailing and repairing locomotives.

During preparations for the Messines offensive in mid-1917 the 5th (NZ) LROC ferried 30,000 tons of ammunition from 'Pacific' station, near Poperinge, to front-line dumps and batteries, despite 16 derailments on the first night alone. At Passchendaele, however, the appalling ground conditions, confusion and lack of materials prevented the Maori Pioneers and others from laying new lines, contributing to the disastrous defeats of 9 and 12 October. According to James Cowan’s Maoris in the Great War, ‘these attacks were failures, because – from the Pioneers' point of view – of the failure of roads, light railways and tram lines.’ [4] Even so, the 5th (NZ) LROC carted 45,000 tons of ammunition and – in one terrible night – evacuated 3000 wounded.

Killed in action

Although they operated behind the lines, four men from the 5th (NZ) LROC lost their lives to enemy action: 2nd Lieutenant Stanley Donne, an NZR clerk and Wellington rugby representative who died of wounds on 22 October 1917; Sapper J.H. 'Dodger' Martin, an Upper Hutt locomotive fireman who had served with the Railway Engineers in Samoa and was killed on Anzac Day 1918; Sergeant James Neary, killed on 12 October 1918; and Sapper Hugh Robb, who had previously been wounded at Gallipoli and was killed on 25 August 1917. At least five more died of illness, in accidents or from other causes, including Captain John Maclean, who was awarded the Military Cross and bar for bravery, but sadly took his own life in France on 23 January 1919.

In February 1918 NZR porter W.G. Munn was awarded a DCM for driving his tractor into a burning ammunition dump under shellfire to retrieve wagons laden with high-explosive shells. In April, after pulling back from Poperinge during the German spring offensives, the New Zealanders claimed to have set a Western Front light-rail record by running 347 trains in 24 hours and earned an inspection visit from King George V.

The LROCs played a valuable role during the Allied offensives later that year, helping to ensure the regular rotation of front-line units to maintain the momentum. In the war's final months the New Zealand railwaymen followed General Sir Herbert Plumer’s Second Army as it advanced through Flanders, taking over and repairing former German-operated rail lines (which had often been mined by the retreating enemy) as they went. On 2 November, shortly before the Armistice, the New Zealanders were relieved by a British company, bringing their railway war to a close.

[1] S.J. Smith, The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force, 1914–1915, Ferguson & Osborn, Wellington, 1924, pp. 19–20.

[2] S.J. Smith, The Samoa (N.Z.) Expeditionary Force, 1914–1915, Ferguson & Osborn, Wellington, 1924, p. 73.

[3] ‘JCW’, quoted in Chronicles of the NZEF, 30 January 1918, p. 9.

[4] James Cowan, The Maoris in the Great War, Whitcombe & Tombs, Auckland, 1926, p. 130.

How to cite this page

Railwaymen in the NZEF, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated