Black Canadians have a long and honourable tradition of patriotism, sacrifice and heroism in the British and Canadian Armed Forces. Following the outbreak of the First World War, Canadians flocked to recruiting stations. From Nova Scotia to British Columbia, hundreds of Black volunteers, eager and willing to serve, were turned away from enlisting in what they were told was a “White man’s war.” The No. 2 Construction Battalion was created after several appeals and protests to top military officials.
History of Black Canadians in the Armed Forces
Black Canadians have long demonstrated loyalty to king and country by volunteering for military service. During the American Revolution (1775–83), the British Crown encouraged enslaved people to desert their American masters and join the British lines. Eager to escape the shackles of enslavement, thousands heeded the call and worked as labourers for the British, while others worked in combat units. The Black Company of Pioneers, for instance, was raised by the British and based in the American colonies — it served throughout the war (see Black Loyalists; Loyalists).
During the War of 1812, Black soldiers helped defend Upper Canada against American invaders. A number of volunteers in the Niagara region were organized into the Company of Colored Men, who played an integral role in the Battle of Queenston Heights. Many Black soldiers in the War of 1812 were former slaves who escaped to Upper Canada to find freedom.
By the 1850s, Black soldiers began receiving military honours for their bravery. William Neilson Hall was one of the first Canadians to be awarded the Victoria Cross — the British Empire’s highest award for valour. Hall, a Black seaman from Horton Bluff, Nova Scotia, risked his life in the relief of Lucknow, India, on 16 November 1857.
In 1860, before the American Civil War, approximately 600 Black people emigrated from California to Canada to escape racial persecution. They would settle in the colony of Vancouver Island. Unpopular with local residents due to the colour of their skin, they were denied the right to join the volunteer fire brigade and decided to organize a volunteer military force. Officially known as the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, the all-Black force was the first organized troop in the history of Western Canada.
First World War
Although Black men were not altogether welcome in the armed forces, there were those who served in a number of combat units during the First World War. This includes the 106th Battalion, Nova Scotia Rifles, CEF, which was authorized 8 November 1915. Recruits were drawn from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland. As the 106th Battalion began the recruitment process, protest erupted over Black volunteers.
DID YOU KNOW?
Jeremiah Jones enlisted with the 106th Battalion in 1916, when he was 58 years old (13 years above the age limit). As did many other underage and older enlistees at the time, Jones lied about his age when he signed up. Jones was recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal by his commanding officer for his heroic actions during the Battle of Vimy Ridge; however, he did not receive the medal during his lifetime.
Samuel Reese, a Black man from British Guiana living in Truro, was told he would only be accepted to the armed forces if he first recruited a certain number of Black soldiers. At the same time, Reese was referred to Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel W.H. Allen for enlistment in the 106th Battalion. Reese also reached out to Reverend William A. White for assistance. White was pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Truro, and he in turn appealed directly to Allen to assist young Black men with the enlistment process. Reverend White made a verbal agreement to put his efforts into recruiting Black men throughout Nova Scotia.
DID YOU KNOW?
Reverend William A. White’s daughter Portia was considered one of the best classical singers of the 20th century; her voice was described by one critic as “a gift from heaven.” Portia White was the first Black Canadian concert singer to win international acclaim. She was named a “person of national historic significance” by the Government of Canada in 1995.
In December 1915, the federal government declared that enlistees could not be refused based on their race. This proclamation did not sit well with several White volunteers, who refused to sign up and fight alongside Black soldiers. As there was no official policy for discrimination, recruiting officers were ultimately responsible for selection. Allen felt strongly that a segregated battalion would be the best solution; however, from December 1915 to July 1916, approximately 16 Black volunteers were accepted into the 106th Battalion.
The Black soldiers were dispersed throughout the battalion’s four companies. On 15 July 1916, the battalion left for England aboard the RMS Empress of Britain. As was common practice at the time, the 106th Battalion was broken up to provide reinforcements for front-line battalions that had suffered heavy casualties in France.
Other CEF combat units containing Black volunteers included the 25th Battalion, the 102nd Battalion, the 1st Quebec Regiment and the 116th Battalion. There are a number of battles in which Black Canadians fought, including the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the Battle of Passchendaele (see Curley Christian).
No. 2 Construction Battalion
Two months after the outbreak of the First World War, the first contingent of Canadian troops arrived in Britain. Across Canada, large numbers of Black men were turned away at recruiting stations strictly on the basis of race (see Prejudice and Discrimination).
Many were unwilling to accept this rejection and a battle for the right to fight for one’s country began to take shape. Several Black leaders and White supporters began to question recruiting policies and practices. Concerns were addressed to the highest levels of both the civilian and military authorities. Defence minister Sir Sam Hughes and Major General G.W. Gwatkin received numerous letters requesting an explanation.
After receiving word from Hughes that those who so desired could form a platoon in any battalion, J.R.B. Whitney, Black publisher of the Canadian Observer newspaper in Toronto, offered to create a unit of 150 Black soldiers. Despite rigorous recruitment and great interest from Black volunteers, Whitney quickly discovered that officers stationed at headquarters were not willing to accept the platoon and adamantly ignored Hughes’s memorandum.
The struggle to form a separate platoon went on for two years. Casualties were reaching alarming proportions overseas and there was a lack of reinforcements. The issue of rejecting Black volunteers had reached the floor of the House of Commons, and many were awaiting a satisfactory response.
On 11 May 1916, the British War Office in London called the governor general and expressed its willingness to accept a segregated unit.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formally authorized 5 July 1916 as a unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Due to the racial composition of the battalion, it was difficult to find a commander. Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel H. Sutherland, of River John, Pictou County, eventually accepted the position of Commanding Officer.
The battalion was granted special authority to recruit throughout Canada. Nova Scotia provided the largest group, with more than 300 recruits. Enlistments also came from the United States and the British West Indies.
Headquarters for the Black Battalion were first established at the Market Wharf in Pictou, Nova Scotia. On 9 September 1916, headquarters were relocated to Truro, Nova Scotia, as Sutherland felt the presence of a Black community would stimulate recruitment.
Reverend William A. White was appointed chaplain and given the rank of honorary captain. The Williamsburg, Virginia, native was reportedly the only Black commissioned officer in the Canadian military at that time.
DID YOU KNOW?
Reverend William A. White’s son Bill was a composer and social activist who became the first Black Canadian to run for federal office, representing the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the Toronto constituency of Spadina in 1949. He was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1970 for “services to the community and his contribution to better relations and understanding between people of different racial background.”
Despite enthusiasm from hundreds of Black men, there was still great difficulty in recruiting the desired target of approximately 1,000 volunteers. This may be attributed to the rejection and humiliation Black men experienced when previously turned away at recruiting stations; the objection to serving in a segregated non-combatant labour battalion; and the exclusion of Black immigrants, especially in Western Canada.
In December 1916, Sutherland received word from Ottawa that the battalion was needed overseas immediately. Sutherland confirmed that the unit would be ready to depart the last week of February 1917.
On 29 August 1917, the Canadian government passed the Military Service Act to reinforce depleted troops overseas. With some exceptions, the Act made every British subject between the ages of 20 and 45 who was, or had been, residing in Canada since 4 August 1914 liable for active service.
Black men, who were turned away from enlistment due to the colour of their skin from 1914 to 1916, were now subject to conscription. Those embittered by racism and discrimination refused to respond to this new law. Many of these men were plucked from the streets and held against their will if they would not enlist.
Forcing Black men to enlist contradicted the exclusion Black men initially faced, and many military authorities still wanted to maintain racial segregation. Despite training as infantry alongside White conscripts in Canada, many Black soldiers were placed in segregated units and assigned to labour duties upon their arrival in England.
Details on the Front
The Black Battalion embarked from Pier 2 in Halifax on 28 March 1917 aboard the SS Southland. Prior to dispatch, a high-ranking officer suggested the battalion be sent overseas on a separate ship without a naval escort to avoid offending fellow passengers. The motion was rejected and the 19 officers and 605 other ranks, along with 3,500 non-Black troops from other units, arrived in Liverpool, England, following a 10-day voyage through submarine-infested waters.
As a construction unit, the battalion was tasked with non-combat support roles, which included building roads, railway tracks and bridges, defusing land mines to allow troops to move forward, removing the wounded from the battlefield and digging and building trenches.
In early May 1917, orders were received to downgrade the battalion to a company because it had fallen under strength. A battalion is generally comprised of 600 to 800 soldiers, and the battalion had lost a number of men who had fallen ill or lost their lives. The unit proceeded to France and the Swiss border, where it was attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps, CEF, and performed logging operations. The majority of soldiers served at Lajoux in the Jura Mountains, while smaller detachments joined Forestry units at Péronne, a commune of the Somme department in Picardie in northern France, and Alençon, a commune in Normandy, France.
Legacy and Significance
The No. 2 Construction Battalion was officially disbanded on 15 September 1920. Their story represents a group of determined men who fought racism and discrimination at every turn for the basic right to serve one’s country. While most soldiers returned home from war as heroes, the men of the Black Battalion didn’t receive proper recognition until decades later.
On 12 November 1982, Senator Calvin W. Ruck and the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia hosted a recognition and reunion banquet held at the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax for nine Black veterans of the First World War. Senator Ruck went on to write The Black Battalion 1916–1920: Canada’s Best-Kept Military Secret (1986), a book that details the story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion and profiles its veterans.
Many veterans of the Black Battalion were buried in Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax. Each grave was marked by a flat, white stone, forcing visitors to crouch down and grope the grass to find loved ones. In 1997–98, Senator Ruck successfully lobbied the Department of Veterans Affairs, and each soldier received a proper headstone and inscription in 1999.
Other commemorations of the battalion include a permanent monument on Market Wharf in Pictou, an annual commemoration ceremony in Pictou, and an official stamp launched by Canada Post on 1 February 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Black Battalion. In addition, the film Honour Before Glory (2001), written and produced by Reverend William White’s great nephew Anthony Sherwood, and the poem “Black Soldier’s Lament” by George Borden — which has been published in Canadian and American Grade 10 textbooks — tell the story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.