AFRICAN CANADIANS IN THE FIRST WORLD WAR
No 2 Construction Battalion
As Canada entered the Great War, there was no definitive national policy on enrollment of African Canadians in the Canadian Army. The decision, whether or not to enroll blacks, was left to unit commanding officers. Most blacks were turned away with the exception of the 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, in Truro, which enrolled blacks. More were turned away than were enrolled because of the belief that “it was a white man’s war” and the fear of an integrated army.
Under pressure from politicians and the black community, with manpower starting to become a problem, losses resulting from death and causalities the Militia Council, on April 16, 1916, authorized the formation of a black construction battalion, commanded by white officers and with a few white senior NCOs of previous military experience, headquartered in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The decision to form a construction battalion was based on the fact that Canada’s black population could not sustain an infantry battalion in action. The Commanding Officer was Lieutenant-Colonel D.H. Sutherland of River John, Nova Scotia. The exception to the white officer’s policy was the unit padre, Honorary Captain, the Reverend, William A. White was one of the few black officers in the Canadian Army in the First World War.
In 1916, the black population of Canada was 20,000, with 7,000 in Nova Scotia, 5,000 in Ontario, 1,000 in New Brunswick and the rest in Western Canada. In Nova Scotia, 200 back men worked in the coal mines and were not eligible to enlist. Over 300 members of the Nova Scotia black community volunteered for service with No 2 Construction Battalion, and the unit also included 165 African Americans along with volunteers from the British West Indies and Guyana.
The unit was formed in Pictou and latter transfer to Truro where more barracks were available and was closer to the major black population centres for recruiting. The unit was authorized to recruit across Canada. The unit had a band that was used for recruiting and social events and deployed with the unit overseas.
In early 1917, men from the unit were employed lifting rails from the Grand Trunk Railroad in New Brunswick to be shipped to the Western Front. The Battalion, with 19 officers and 605 men, sailed for England, from Halifax, on March 25th, 1917 and arrived in Liverpool on April 8th. The unit was stationed at Seaford and for the next five weeks was employed in constructing trenches for troops in training and building and repairing roads.
Before proceeding to France, the unit was 300 men under strength and was reorganized as a reinforced Construction Company of 10 officers and 506 men. The Commanding Officer took a reduction in rank to major in order to retain command.
The Company was ordered to France on May 17 and arrived at La Joux in the Jora Mountains on May 21. The unit was attached to No 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps and was employed in logging, milling and shipping operations. It also built and repaired roads, constructed a small gauge railway to move logs to the saw mill and maintained the camp’s water supply system. Small elements of the Company were detached to other areas.
Although the members of the unit worked alongside their white comrades, they lived in their own camp and were segregated for recreation, medical services and even detention. However, unlike black colonial soldiers of the British and French armies, they were allowed much more freedom and not confined to guarded camps and were paid at the same rate as other Canadian soldiers.
When the military Service Act was passed on August 29, 1917, which authorized conscription, black volunteers who had previously been turned away were now forced to go to war. Many blacks, who had earlier been turned down for service, were understandably resistant to recruitment and conscription.
In April 1918, the unit was authorized to expand to battalion level, No 2 Construction Company was never able to recruit the numbers required to form a battalion.
With the Armistice, the Company returned to England and was attached to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot. Members were dispersed to several military camps for demobilization and return to Canada. The Nova Scotia component of the unit sailed for Halifax in January 1919 and the unit was officially disbanded on September 13, 1920.
The officers and Men of No 2 Construction Battalion were commended for their valuable and faithful service to the Forestry Corps. This unit was the first and last segregated black Canadian Army unit.
African Canadian Service
In addition to No 2 Construction Battalion, over 1500 African Canadians served in other units of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, including 400 in infantry battalions.