Kenora Great War Project


Personal Details
Date of BirthAugust 15, 1890
Place of BirthKenora, Ontario
Marital StatusSingle
Next of KinGeorge Derry (father), Kenora, Ontario
Trade / CallingRailroad Brakeman
ReligionRoman Catholic
Service Details
Regimental Number2125132
Service Record Link to Service Record
BattalionNo. 58 Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company
ForceCanadian Expeditionary Force
BranchCanadian Railway Troops
Enlisted / ConscriptedEnlisted
Address at EnlistmentKenora, Ontario
Date of EnlistmentFebruary 8, 1917
Age at Enlistment26
Theatre of ServiceEurope
Prisoner of WarNo
Survived WarYes
Death Details
Date of DeathJune 6, 1957
Age at Death66
Buried AtLake of the Woods Cemetery, Kenora, Ontario
Plot53E-35-3, Angel Crest Block

Derry, Willard John

Throughout the war railroads were essential for evacuating the wounded and moving troops, equipment and supplies. Skilled workers were needed for their construction, maintenance and operation. Sapper Willard John Derry enlisted with a railway unit in February 1917 and served in France and Belgium for two years.

Willard was the youngest son of George Derry and his first wife Delia Blanchard. When the 1870 US census was taken George and Delia were living in North Adams, Massachusetts, a small town in the northwest corner of the state. They were staying with Delia’s family and George was working for the railway. Their oldest child George Jr. was a month old at the time. He was followed by a daughter Rose (1871) and sons Arthur (1875) and Joseph (1876). Around 1877 the Derry family moved to the town of Rat Portage (later called Kenora), in northwestern Ontario. Two more sons were born there, another George Jr. in 1883 and Willard on 15 August 1890. The oldest boy was no longer with the family and he likely died as a young child. According to George’s obituary he was an expert in using nitroglycerin and he was sent to Rat Portage to demonstrate the use of this new explosive in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). Once the local section of the railroad was completed the family moved to Vermillion Bay where George operated a store. After a few years they returned to Rat Portage and Willard’s mother died there in February 1900 when he was nine years old. Just two months later his brother George Jr. passed away, at age 16. The following spring, when the 1901 census was taken, his father was working as a lumberman and they were lodging in Rat Portage with Frank and John Gardner. The railway provided a lot of jobs for local lads and by the time Willard enlisted in 1917 he was working for the CPR as a brakeman.

During the war Canada played a major role in providing skilled workers for the construction and operation of railways in France and Belgium. In 1916 rail transportation was being expanded and over the next year ten new railway battalions were raised in Canada. Willard enlisted in Winnipeg on 8 February 1917, signing up with No. 1 Section Skilled Railway Employees. Nine days later he left Kenora by train with six other volunteers, on the first leg of their journey overseas. A draft of 32 other railway employees had left a week earlier. They all went to Montreal, where the unit had been mobilized, and early in March they embarked for England on the SS Ausonia. In England No. 1 Section became the 12th (Canadian) Light Railway Operating Company, Royal Engineers and three weeks later they were re-designated as No. 58 Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (Canadians), Royal Engineers.

Willard’s unit was in England for only a month before being sent to France, arriving there on 19 April 1917. During two major battles – Messines Ridge in June 1917 and Lys in April 1918 – No. 58 Company operated just behind the combat areas where trains were needed to haul troops, ammunition, supplies, ambulance units and refugees. At the end of July 1918 Willard was given his first leave, 14 days, and he returned in the middle of August for the final period of the war. The fighting was moving into a more open phase and roads and railways were essential for maintaining supplies to the front lines. On 11 November the Armistice ended hostilities on the Western Front but it would be months before most of the Canadian troops returned to England. The 1st and 2nd Canadian Divisions occupied parts of Germany while the other two divisions remained in Belgium, and the railway troops were kept busy until the spring. Willard had a 14-day leave in March and three weeks later he returned to England with his unit, exactly two years after they had first arrived in France. No. 58 Company was disbanded in April 1919 and Willard returned to Canada the following month, arriving in Halifax on the SS Aquitania on 25 May 1919. He was discharged in Montreal two days later and his intended address was 616 Second Street in Kenora.

According to Willard’s obituary he worked for the Town Fire Department, J.W. Stone Boat Company and the CPR. His father passed away in Kenora in 1924, survived by his second wife Catherine MacDonell, two daughters (Mrs. Alfred Mellish of Vancouver and Miss MacDonnell of Kenora), son Arthur of Winnipeg, and sons Willard and Joseph of Kenora. Willard was married in Kenora on 4 May 1925. His wife Emma Rowbottom (née Jarvis) was a widow with three children, Alexander, Edna May and Irene. Her husband Charles Rowbottom had died in 1919 of war-related injuries and her brother Arthur Jarvis was also a veteran of the war.

Willard continued his career with the CPR, becoming a conductor by 1945 and retiring in 1953. He and his wife lived on Fifth Street North and Ninth Street North. Emma passed away in 1953 and Willard died on 6 June 1957. They are buried in Lake of the Woods Cemetery in Kenora. Emma’s daughter Irene (Mrs. Jack Breeze) (1915-1957) and Willard’s brother Joseph Derry (1876-1958) are also buried there.

By Becky Johnson

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