No. 2 Construction Battalion
Fighting for a country that didn’t want them.
On March 25 1917, Canada’s first and only black military unit left Halifax harbor for the Western Front. Six hundred soldiers, mostly from Nova Scotia, formed up as No. 2 Construction Battalion. Many had been trying to enlist since 1914, but winning this privilege had been an up-hill fight: for two years military authorities had turned down black recruits, telling them “This is a white man’s war.”
Finally, in 1916, Canada allowed black recruits entry into a segregated united of laborers. An additional 165 African-Americans crossed the border to join them, creating a full complement of 600 men. Winning the struggle to join up hardly ended discrimination. Except for the reverend, all officers were white, and even when they went to board their transport ship on March 25 the captain initially refused to let them on, saying that he would not let them travel on the same vessel as white soldiers.
The recruits hoped to be allowed to fight when they reached France, but instead the Canadian Expediotnary Force immediately downgraded them from a battalion to a company and assigned them to fell trees and prepare positions for white soldiers. They were not ever even issued with rifles. Their work was tedious and demoralizing, and many considered themselves failures even as they suffered casualties from artillery shells and poison gas.
The unit returned to Canada in 1919, but received no fanfare upon arrival. Much like America’s black soldiers, they returned to a country that did not value them or their sacrifice and actively oppressed their rights. Most of these veterans returned to poverty and unemployment. When they finally had their first reunion in 1982, only nine could attend from twenty known survivors. Their legacy and sacrifice has been revived since then. Although very few men were allowed the chance to serve, they began the first crack in the Canadian military’s institutionalized racism.
Several commenters on this post have claimed that Canada’s military did not display racial prejudice during the First World War, or indeed that this post is itself “fake history.” I feel compelled to respond.
All the powers who fought in the Great War faced anxiety about using black soldiers. Although the European empires had a long history of using indigenous auxiliaries, arming them to face white men was to be a point of constant debate. It would show, of course, that black men could fight as well as white ones, which would undermine the rhetoric of white supremacy that lay at the basis of the colonial system and racial segregation practiced by the world’s imperial powers. British General Sir James Willcocks advised the government that “It is always judicious never to give the black man the idea that you seek hist assistance against other white men…,” and notably the British would never use their African subjects in battle outside of the continent. This was unlike the French, who came to the opposite conclusion and used black soldiers in the worst combat zones. “I would prefer ten Blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman!” said Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau.
In the case of Canada, black and Asian men faced great difficulty enlisting in the military until 1916. The exception to this racial boundary were members of Canada’s First Nations. Over 4,000 men from reservations volunteered in the war. However, this does not disprove the notion that the Canadian military was racist. In fact, it does the opposite, as the army viewed the First Nations as “martial races” whose men were “naturally” suited to certain battlefield skills like scouting and sniping.
On the other hand, the army actively discouraged black, Japanese, and Chinese men from enlisting. Before 1916 recruitment offices simply turned them away. This was despite eagerness from non-white Canadians to serve, as was so amply demonstrated by one George Morton of Hamilton who wrote to the Minister of Militia.
"So our people, gratefully remembering their obligations in this respect, are most anxious to serve their King and Country in this critical crisis of its history and they do not think they should be prevented from doing so on the ground of the hue of their skin.”
After 1916, the CEF faced a dire need for new recruits and considered allowing black men to enlist. Yet still this policy faced opposition from many within the military. “In the last extremity we might organize a company or two,” commented Chief of the Canadian General Staff W. Gwatkin, “But would the Canadian Negroes make good fighting men? I do not think so.” The military fundamentally rejected the idea that black men could fight in combat, often with bizarre reasoning such as that a black unit would “would be eyed askance; it would crowed out a white battalion; it would be difficult to re-inforce."
But with Canadian battalions asking for recruits it appeared ridiculous to reject eager volunteers, such as in 1915 the 104th Battalion CEF sent away twenty fit black men. Gwatkin’s solution was to form a segregated labor battalion . This kept black men under the command of white officers and out of combat. Previously, the only black men in service had been individuals lucky not to have been turned away. The formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion made it the first large unit in the Canadian military that accepted black volunteers.
By refusing to allow black men to fight, the Canadian military denied the labor battalion’s men the full privileges of citizenship and of the ability to demonstrate their patriotism. No. 2 Construction Battalion was kept away from the front-lines, and used instead for menial labor tasks – similar to how most non-white men were used in the American and in other European armies.
Nevertheless, for black soldiers from Africa, from the Americas, and, as historians are now documenting in increasing numbers, for black Europeans, military service during the First World War was a way of asserting their manhood and their equality in societies that systematically denied them rights.
Ray Costello, Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War, 2015.
Melissa N. Shaw, “Most Anxious to Serve their King and Country”: Black Canadians Fight to Enlist in WWI and Emerging Race Conciousness in Ontaria, 1914-1919,” Historie sociale 49, no. 100 (2016): 543-580
"Black Canadians in Uniform,” Canadian Government Veterans’ Affairs, http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/black-canadians-in-uniform/history
Men of No. 2 Construction Battalion.