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The story of Canada’s WWI all-black military battalion

 

Photo by PJMixer licensed CC BY-NC-SA

In Canada, November 11 is known as Remembrance Day. It is a day dedicated to honouring the brave men and women that risked their lives in battle to defend the rights and freedoms that we are fortunate to have.
 

photo of men waiting to sign up at an army recruiting office

At the beginning of the war, men rush to sign up as soldiers through army recruiting offices such as this one in Toronto. (1914)

World War I was the first time in history that a military battle involving millions of people from many countries fighting at the same time took place. At the start of the war, many young Canadians volunteered to join their country’s armed forces. However, some, including young black men, were told that they could not enlist (sign-up) until the No. 2 Construction Battalion was created on July 5, 1916. It became one of the most important military units in Canadian history.

Who were they?

a photo of all the soldiers who made up the No. 2 Construction Battalion

The No. 2 Construction Battalion (Nova Scotia Archives)

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was made up of 605 men who volunteered to serve in the Canadian military. Most of the men were black men from Nova Scotia, but others were from New Brunswick, Ontario and the Prairies. Some black men from the United States and the Caribbean came to join the battalion as well!

Why was the battalion formed?

photo of women making lifeboats in Nova Scotia

Both women and black men were not given the same opportunities as others wanting to enlist. Women who didn't want to become nurses wound up helping troops by knitting, volunteering, or making munitions (weapons). These women are making lifeboats are Dr. Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. (1918)

Unfortunately, the Canadian army during World War I did not welcome everyone. Women and black men were among the groups of people that were not given the same opportunities as others. Although many had been turned away or given non-military duties, black men remained eager to show loyalty to their country. The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed specifically for black men to serve as part of the Canadian army. Even though they would not be given the same rights as others, the men in this unit were proud and excited to help win the war for Canada and the other countries that were fighting on the same side.

What were their duties?

soldiers in the trenches

The No. 2 Construction Battalion dug trenches like this one, that other Canadian soldiers used to hide from and launch attacks, 1916. (Bibliothèque Nationale de France)

The No. 2 Construction Battalion helped to build trenches (the alleyways beneath the earth's surface for hiding or launching attacks) for the soldiers at the front of the battle. Building and repairing roads, making small railways to move lumber and laying barbed wire were some of the jobs that the men in this special battalion were given to do.

The same as other soldiers, but not treated the same

photo of temporary tents at the front lines

Conditions for soldiers on the front lines back in WWI were not the same as they are today — many spent time in trenches or in temporary tents like these used by the 22nd Battalion during the Battle of Amiens in France, 1918.

The men in this battalion were not treated well. They were given equipment and clothing that were below the quality that other men in the army were given. Because of the poor quality of their clothing, several of the men were often sick. The men were also asked to perform dangerous tasks and were sometimes injured by artillery fire and poisonous gas. The medical staff in the army refused to take care of them except for Dr. Dan Murray (grandfather of famous Canadian singer Anne Murray).

The legacy that they left behind

photo of Reverend WhiteThe No. 2 Construction Battalion was Canada's first and only all-black military unit. Some of the men in the battalion received great honours for their valuable service.

  • Rev. William White was given the rank of Honourary Captain, making him the only black officer in the entire Canadian army during World War I. 
  • A few of the men from the battalion went on to serve as combat soldiers. Ethelbert (Curley) Christian and Seymour Tyler fought bravely in the battle for Vimy Ridge, one of Canada's most famous military efforts. Tyler was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal in World War I, as well as the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the Defence Medal in World War Two.

​(Photo of Rev. William White)

Did you know?

photo of dedication of heritage plaque at Queen's Park

On the steps of the Ontario Legislature in Toronto for the dedication of a plaque in memory of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. The plaque is in the main hall of Queen's Park.

Black soldiers have played a major role in Canada's military history for over 200 years!

  • They helped the British fight off the Americans in the War of 1812, assisted in stopping the rebellion in Upper Canada in 1837.
  • They travelled to South Africa to fight in the Boer War from 1899 to 1902.
  • Soldiers like William Hall and Jeremiah Jones received many of the highest honours and awards given to military service people, and are considered legends in the history of Canada's armed forces!