This article provides an overview of Canadian Armed Forces No.2 Construction Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as the No.2 Construction C.E.F. or Black Battalion.
During World War One (WWI), many young black people were eager to serve in Canada’s Armed Forces.
However, informal segregation made it difficult for blacks to join the Army. Although official Canadian government policy clearly stated that black volunteers could be accepted, many blacks were rejected at recruiting stations.
After two years of appeals and protests aimed at senior military officials, a compromise was made.
In 1916, the black population of Canada was at estimated at 20,000, the majority being in Nova Scotia (7,000) and Ontario (5,000), with lesser numbers in New Brunswick (1,000) and the western provinces. Approximately 1,500 blacks enlisted with the CEF.
3.0 Brief History
On 11 May 1916, the British War Office informed the Governor General of Canada that it approved the formation of an all-black unit. The No.2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force was established on 05 July 1916, becoming the first, and only, all-Black battalion in Canadian military history.
It was organised as a segregated non-combatant labour unit. During WWI there were three construction battalions used for building and repairing trenches, roads, bridges, railways, and other tasks.
Officially, the unit recruited from across Canada, but in practice the majority of recruits came from Maritime Provinces, with over half of all personnel originating from Nova Scotia, Eastern Canada.
The headquarters (HQ) was first located at the Market Wharf in Pictou town, Nova Scotia – moving in September 1916 to Truro, just south of Pictou.
The first commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4) Daniel Hugh Sutherland, a railway contractor by trade (Canadian Great War Project, 2016). Sutherland originally enlisted on 21 April 1916 with the 193rd Battalion in the rank of Major (OF-3), spending six months with this unit before taking command of No.2 Construction B.E.F. on 05 July 1916 (Canadian Great War Project, 2016).
All officers in the unit were white, with one exception, the unit Chaplain. Reverend William White was one of a handful of black officers in the British Empire during WWI. As a padre, his captain’s rank was honorary.
With regards to senior non-commissioned officers (SNCOs) all were black except for the two most senior appointments. The Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM) and the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant (RQMS) were for whites only. It was argued that few blacks had leadership experience, whilst the RSM and RQMS appointees had previous military experience.
The unit was established for 1,049 all ranks, having 180 recruits within the first two months. The move to Truro was conducted to stimulate recruitment, but recruitment continued to be an issue. Reasons cited for problems in recruitment included:
- Segregated nature of the unit;
- Non-combatant status;
- Previous rejections when trying to enlist.
“Incredibly, even while wearing their country’s uniform, black soldiers continued to suffer segregation. In Truro, they had to sit upstairs in the movie theatre until some unit officers intervened.” (Boileau, 2016).
Approximate recruiting figures for 1916 include (Boileau, 2016):
- 300 from Nova Scotia.
- 125 from the rest of Canada.
- 163 American blacks.
- An unknown number from the British West Indies (Caribbean Islands).
Around 400 blacks working in coal mines, deemed an essential occupation, applied but could not join (Boileau, 2016).
In December 1916, the unit received word that it was needed in France, with all 624 personnel being transported to England on 28 March 1917 on board the SS Southland. The unit was supposed to travel in its own ship, facing segregation once again, but the navy rejected this. The unit arrived at Liverpool ten days later.
In May 1917, the unit was reorganised as No.2 Construction Company and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (Joost, 2016). It was still 300 men under establishment and Sutherland reverted to the rank of Major (Boileau, 2016). The strength of the company was 506 men and 10 officers.
Also in May, the unit was transferred to La Joux, located in the Jura Mountains, France, near the Swiss border, being assigned (for Canadian purposes) to No.5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (Boileau, 2016; Joost, 2016). The unit was co-located with four forestry companies.
The personnel of the unit were divided in order to perform a number of different tasks, including (Boileau, 2016; Joost, 2016):
- Assisting in logging, milling, and shipping of lumber;
- Ensuring adequate water supplies;
- Construction of a narrow gauge railway to carry logs to the mill;
- Road maintenance; and
- Laying barb wire on the frontline.
The unit continued to suffer from a variety of issues including (Boileau, 2016):
- Receiving supplies last;
- Not getting underwear or socks; and
- White medical officers refusing to treat the soldiers.
In January 1918, a number of Russians arrived for service with the unit, with 100 by April (Joost, 2016). When the unit left for the UK in December 1918 there were 150 Russians attached to the unit, who were then subsequently transferred to No.40 Company.
“When conscription became law in late 1917, it included blacks. Men who had tried to enlist only two years earlier and experienced rejection on the basis of colour now found themselves bound by law to join.” (Boileau, 2016).
Although members of the unit hoped to be able to take part in combat, only a few eventually did. Despite this, a number were injured and killed by artillery fire, poison gas, and construction accidents.
In January 1919, the unit sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“In November 1919, Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland indicated that he was anxious to have the identity of No. 2 Construction Battalion preserved by making it an active militia unit organized from black Canadians.56 However, this was not to be, as units of the Canadian Forestry Corps and Canadian Railway Troops were not continued after the war, and hence, there was no unit to carry on their legacy.” (Joost, 2016).
On 15 September 1920 the unit was officially disbanded.
In July 1993, in honour of the Black Battalion, a granite memorial erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorating the unit’s contribution to Canada was unveiled at Pictou’s Market Wharf.
“Since then, an annual memorial service has taken place at the monument honouring the men of “The Black Battalion,” who persevered against deep-rooted prejudice to serve their country with pride.” (Boileau, 2016).
Boileau, J. (2016) Pride & Prejudice at the Front. Legion: Canada’s Military History Magazine. Available from World Wide Web: https://legionmagazine.com/en/2016/06/pride-prejudice-at-the-front/. [Accessed: 23 July, 2019].
Canadian Great War Project. (2016) Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Hugh Sutherland. Available from World Wide Web: http://canadiangreatwarproject.com/searches/soldierDetail.asp?ID=77962. [Accessed: 23 July, 2019].
Joost, M. (2016) No.2 Construction Battalion: The Operational History. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.journal.forces.gc.ca/vol16/no3/page51-eng.asp. [Accessed: 23 July, 2019].