A brief history of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F. with respect to its association with events, persons, and places of national historic significance.
One international historian (David Shermer) emphatically declares that World War One was the most significant turning point in the history of the twentieth century. (1)
Some referred to it as "The War To End All Wars". The United States entered the war in 1917, proclaiming it as "A War To Make The World Safe For Democracy".
It was an emotional time and also a majestic time. A time for one's manhood to be tested in the arena of world conflict.
Canadians in general were caught up in the excitement associated with participation in a World War. The mother country was at war, so Canada was at war, and that's all there was to it.
Every able-bodied Canadian male was expected to do his part, to join the colours, to serve king and country. Patriotism was rampant. (2)
At the outbreak of the war in August 1914, Black Canadians in common with other Canadians were also caught up in the patriotic fervour sweeping the country.
Blacks were no exception. They were also seeking the adventure, the status, the glory, and the financial benefits associated with wearing the king's uniform.
They also desired a piece of the action. In the words of Sydney M. Jones, a surviving black World War One veteran, "It was the thing to do". (3)
However, Black Canadians received a devastating signal that they were considered third class citizens.
The fact that they generally were not included in the patriotic and military institutions of Canada was made painfully evident. (4)
From British Columbia in the west to Nova Scotia in the east, black volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force were being turned away in large numbers; commonly heard was the phrase, "This is a white man's war". (5)
Many commanding and recruiting officers refused to accept black recruits in their units. Consequently, the first battle blacks had to overcome was not against the known enemy, but an unequal struggle against entrenched racism.
Some light complexioned blacks were successful in evading the colour bar by passing as Indians or whites.
Some commanding officers accepted a limited number of blacks into their regiments. (6)
Black leaders and some white supporters in various provinces made the rejection of black volunteers a national issue. (7)
The records indicated that at least two blatant acts of racial discrimination led to the matter being debated in the House of Commons. (8)
In November 1915, twenty black volunteers from New Brunswick persisted in their efforts to enlist, and were finally accepted at a Saint John recruiting station. After being sworn in, they were sent to Sussex to join the 104th Battalion. On arrival, the officer in charge refused to accept them, and sent them back to Saint John. (9)
As a further indication of the intense desire of blacks to serve their beloved country, a black journalist in Toronto wrote to Sir Sam Hughes, the minister of militia and defence, patriotically offering to recruit a unit of one hundred and fifty black soldiers.
After being granted permission by Hughes, he was later informed by the district commanding officer that no commanding officer in Military District No. 2 was willing to accept the platoon. Permission to recruit was withdrawn. (10)
The issue of the general rejection of blacks was debated in the House of Commons on March 24, 1916. The debate was followed by instructions to the chief of the general staff, Major General W. GWatkin, for a report.
GWatkin, in a memorandum of April 13, 1916, put forth some disparaging opinions with respect to the loyalty and the combat capability of black men. The unkindest cut of all was his assertion that, "the civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty".
Among other things he recommended: "To allow them to form one or more labour battalions. Negroes from Nova Scotia, for example, would not be unsuitable for the purpose." (11)
GWatkins' memo to the militia council was to become the genesis for the emergence of a racially segregated Construction Battalion.
The Battalion has a distinct and direct association with the then Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden.
On April 16, 1916, at a meeting of the militia council with the Prime Minister presiding, the decision was made to form a black labour Battalion headquartered in Nova Scotia, subject to the approval of the British command. That approval was received three weeks later. (12)
Borden, a Nova Scotian, took a personal interest in the Battalion, and played a direct hands-on role in establishing the unit.
For approximately two months after its conception, military officials experienced great difficulty in finding a qualified officer willing to command a Black Battalion. The adjutant general himself referred to the No. 2 Construction as a somewhat peculiar command.
The Prime Minister intervened in the process and suggested a fellow Nova Scotian, Lt. Col. Daniel H. Sutherland, as a potential commander. (13)
On July 5, 1916, one day after Sutherland agreed to accept the position, the official authorization of the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formally announced. (14)
Borden's personal interest and association with the development process led to the acquiring of a commanding officer which was a crucial factor in the Battalion becoming a reality and a first in Canadian military history.
Generally, the original rank and file members of military units are recruited in a distinct geographical area. In this unique event the Battalion, officered by whites, was granted special authority to recruit in all provinces, wherever blacks could be found. (15)
It was in every sense a Battalion of national significance.
Another event of both national and international historic significance occurred when Canadian and American officials co-operated to permit the recruitment of blacks in the United States while that country was still neutral.
One hundred and sixty eight blacks crossed the border to bolster the ranks of the Battalion. (16)
No doubt another first in Canadian military history.
The unique and special status of the Battalion in terms of historical significance can be further measured by the authority granted to Col. Sutherland with respect to reporting.
He was authorized to communicate directly with the militia council in Ottawa, thereby by-passing the normal channel of command in Halifax. (17)
Needless to say, the special treatment accorded to the Battalion led to considerable animosity from other units.
As a matter of fact, it was suggested that to avoid offending the susceptibility of other troops, that the Battalion be sent overseas in a separate transport without escort.
The suggestion was rejected by the Royal Navy. (18)
The Chaplain, Honorary Captain (Rev.) William A. White, was the first Black Commissioned Officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. The war diary of the Battalion indicates that he was the only black officer (Chaplain) in the British Forces during the war. (19)
Walker writes that Captain White, while serving in France, experienced rejection when an extra Protestant Chaplain was sent into the area, because he was not acceptable to the white units. (20)
Reverend White was honoured by his alma mater, Acadia University, with an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree. (21)
At his death in September 1936, the Halifax papers lauded his service to king and country. Indications are that he was the first black man to be awarded an honourary degree in Canada. (22)
After arriving in England (April 1917) the battalion was relegated to the status of a labour company, due to being under strength. The company was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps. (23)
When suggestions were put forth to Prime Minister Borden and others on ways to augment the unit, Major Bristol, secretary to the Canadian Overseas Militia Minister, was requested to make a report.
In a response labelled "personal", Bristol stated that "these niggers do well in a Forestry Corps and other labour units", but since their numbers were so limited, "the prospects of maintaining a Battalion are not very bright." (24)
The black company was stationed in a remote location without any means of amusement. Segregation in terms of facilities was total. They had to wait for the creation of a separate "black" Y.M.C.A., for their entertainment. They were also subjected to other forms of discriminatory treatment, such as a separate "black" wing of the local hospital.
Those who strayed from military discipline were similarly confined in a segregated punishment compound. (25)
The men and boys (some were only 15 and 16 years of age) carried out their assigned tasks willingly and without question. Canada and the British Empire were in mortal danger, and as in previous wars, they were prepared to serve in any capacity.
With the strength, fortitude, and patience inherited from generations of oppression, they endured and they prevailed.
The black unit being always regarded as a problem and never seriously appreciated, was disbanded with almost unseemly haste soon after the armistice was announced, though the demand for forestry products remained high. (26)
However, they were commended by the commanding officer of the Forestry Corps for their valuable and faithful service. (27)
The unit returned to Canada in January, 1919. Veterans who were prepared to serve and die for their country came home to many of the same restrictions and oppression. The great war (World War One) did not end all wars, did not save the world for democracy, and it did not signal an end to racism.
The Black Veterans in common with other blacks still felt the pain of segregated housing, segregated employment (sleeping car porters) and some segregated graveyards.
In the black section of Camp Hill Cemetery, Halifax, we see headstones bearing the names of departed No. 2 veterans like Corporal George W. Tolliver, 1932, Private Harry Turner, 1941, Private John Lambert, 1917, Private Henry Bundy, 1950, Corporal William Kellum, 1921, and Charles William Jackson, 1921, among others. (28)
Many military historians and writers in general have consistently ignored the roles played by black servicemen in the numerous wars and conflicts that have occurred during the past two centuries or more.
The contribution of blacks to World War One has been virtually unknown or quickly forgotten.
In 1938 – under the authority of the Minister of National Defence – Colonel A. Fortesque Duguid, Director of the Historical section, general staff, wrote the official history of World War One.
In his 596-page work, the author tersely and erroneously described black enlistment in four words: "Black volunteers were refused." (29)
We are of the opinion that a permanent nationally recognized memorial to the No. 2 Construction Battalion will assist in the unit acquiring some long overdue status in Canadian history.
If Canada (God forbid) should go to war tomorrow, Black Canadians would still be proud and eager to line up in front of recruiting stations waiting to enlist.
Blacks also experienced problems in enlisting in all three Services during the early years of World War Two. However, that is another story we are presently pursuing.
Dr. Calvin Ruck
The details of the references indicated above
are unavailable at the time of this posting.
No. 2 Construction Battalion
to and by Sir Sam Hughes
Minister of Militia and Defence, Ottawa
Memorandum on the enlistment of Negroes...
by Sir Willoughby Garnons Gwatkin
Chief of the General Staff, Ottawa
13 April 1916
Military Secretary: Memo to The Naval Secretary
21 February 1917
Naval Secretary: Memo to The Military Secretary
23 February 1917
Submission to The Historic Sites and Monuments Board
Dr. Calvin Ruck, Chair
Black Battalion Committee
18 October 1991
Black Battalion to be Commemorated
Environment Canada News Release
Pictou, 11 December 1992
Canada's First and Only Black Battalion to be Honoured
For Service to King & Country (1916-1920)
The No. 2 Construction Battalion
Pictou, 10 July 1993
Names In Ascending Order, by Regimental Number
The No. 2 Construction Battalion
CEF – Canadian Expeditionary Force
Guide to Contents
No. 2 Construction Battalion
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