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The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF), was the only all-black battalion in Canadian military history and also the only one to serve in World War I. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel D.H. Sutherland, formerly of the 193rd Battalion, CEF, all but one of the unit's 19 officers were white, the exception being Honorary Captain William A. White.

Contents

History

This outbreak of war, few if any blacks were serving in the Canadian military because of the racial attitudes prevalent at the time. Initially, some blacks attempted to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, but most were rejected. The Department of Militia and Defence's policy towards recruitment was to defer to the judgement of the individual commanding officer, and since most—if not all—held deeply ingrained beliefs about the inferiority of blacks, very few were accepted. Rejected black recruits were often told that "this is a white man's war".

Members of the black community petitioned the military for inclusion in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Several options were entertained, but it was eventually decided that a segregated non-combat unit would be formed. On May 11, 1916, The British War Office informed the Governor General that it approved of the formation of this unit. So on July 5, 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion was authorized. Its headquarters was initially in Pictou, Nova Scotia, but moved to Truro, Nova Scotia in September 1916.

The original intention was to recruit the unit primarily from the Maritimes, with companies also being raised in Ontario and western Canada. A little over a month after the unit was authorized, however, only 180 recruits had been obtained. By November 1916, the recruiting situation had improved little, leading Lt. Col. Sutherland to propose raising a company in the British West Indies. While nothing came of this, the battalion did manage to obtain about 165 men from the United States. When the men were finally assembled in March 1917 to prepare for departure overseas, the battalion's overall strength was just over 600 men.

The unit departed from Halifax, Nova Scotia on board the SS Southland on March 28, 1917 and arrived at Liverpool, England ten days later.

In May 1917, the unit was downgraded in status to a company and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps. By the fall of 1917, the unit was operating in the Jura mountains of France, headquartered at La Joux. It was employed primarily in the production of timber for use by the allied armies and repairing roads. Members of the unit hoped to be able to take part in the action of the trenches but only a few eventually did. Even so, some were injured, and some lost their lives to artillery fire, poison gas, and construction accidents.

The men of No. 2 Construction Battalion returned to Canada in early 1919 and the unit officially disbanded on September 15 of the same year.

In 1981, The Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia, which had been incorporated in 1977, chose as its first public event a reunion of black First World War veterans. This reunion was held November 12-14, 1982 in Halifax, Nova Scotia and was attended by nine of the approximately twenty known surviving black veterans. They were: William Carter (No. 2), John W. Hamilton (No. 2), Percy J. Richards (No. 2), Gordon C. Wilson (No. 2), Albert D. Deleon (CFC), A. Seymour Tyler (No. 2), Sydney M. Jones (106BN, The RCR), Isaac Phills (85BN), and John R. Pannill (Merchant Navy).

In 1992, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, was designated an event of national historic significance by the government of Canada, and a commemorative plaque was placed in Pictou, Nova Scotia the following year.

In February 2007, controversy arose over the purchase of the Victory Medal for a former member of the unit, 931309 Sapper PR. P.F. Fenton, by Dave Thomson of St. George, Ontario on behalf of the Black Cultural Centre in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia for over $7,400 (Cdn). 1, 2

See also

References

  • The Black Battalion (1916-1920): Canada's Best-Kept Military Secret by Calvin W. Ruck (ISBN 0-920852-92-0)
  • Canada's Black Battalion: No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920 by Calvin W. Ruck (ISBN 0-921201-00-1)
  • Nova Scotia's Part in the Great War, compiled and edited by M. Stuart Hunt
  • "The Unwelcome Sacrifice: A Black Unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1917-19", by John G. Armstrong in Ethnic Armies: Polyethnic Armed Forces From the Time of the Habsburgs To the Age of the Superpowers. edited by N. F. Dreisziger

External links

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