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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
(Photo of Rev. William White)
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!