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

 

FPhoto by PJMixer licensed CC BY-NC-SA

November 11 is Remembrance Day. We honour the brave men and women who served in the military during times of war. They defend the rights and freedoms that we are fortunate to have.

When did they go to war?

The First World War started in 1914 and lasted four years. It was fought at sea, on land and in the air.

It was the first time in history that millions of people from many countries fought at the same time.


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)

At the start of the war, many young Canadians volunteered to join their country’s armed forces. However, many Asian and Black men were told that they could not enlist (sign-up). Some battalions (military units) during the First World War did not welcome everyone.

Although many Black men had been turned away, they remained eager to show loyalty to their country.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed for Black men to serve as part of the Canadian army. They would not be in a combat role. But 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.

It became one of the most important military units in Canadian history.


Who were the soldiers in the battalion?

men in the band with their instruments of trumpets, tubas and a drum

The No. 2 Battalion band. (Photo courtesy of Mary Beth Sunderland)

Over 750 Black men enlisted in No. 2 Construction Battalion. Most of the men were Black men from Nova Scotia and Ontario. Others came from across Canada. Men from the Caribbean who were already in Canada also enlisted. And over 160 men from the United States joined.  

When the battalion sailed for England in 1917, there were 605 men.


The importance of their work

soldiers carry logs over a makeshift bridge over a river

​Members of the Canadian Forestry Corps carry split logs across the Souchez River in France. (Archives (photos and documents)/CWM 19920085-744/George Metcalf Archival Collection/Canadian War Museum)

No. 2 Construction Battalion served in the forests of south-east France. They did not serve at the front, but their work was still very important for the war.

They worked with white Canadian loggers to help with the production of lumber. They helped to cut down trees, take them to the mills and helped run the mills. Then they took the finished products to the railway station.

So the mills were able to produce far more wood, and it was in very high demand. It was important for the soldiers in the front lines.
 

a lumber mill

Postcard of a mill, log dump and Black and white soldiers. (Department of National Defence | Government of Canada)

The wood was used to make trenches and observation posts. Without the wood, the trenches would have caved in. The soldiers would have had to walk through deep mud.

The wood was also used for wooden walkways through the mud of the battlefield. Some was even used as railway ties for supporting railway tracks.


The legacy that they left behind

photo of Reverend WhiteNo. 2 Construction Battalion was Canada's largest ever all-Black military unit. Here are some of their great accomplishments:

  • Rev. William White was the only Black officer in No. 2 Construction Battalion. He became a minister at the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax and hosted a popular radio broadcast. 
  • Lionel Ethelbert Cross was an outstanding lawyer in Toronto helping both Black and white citizens.

​(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.
  • They assisted in stopping the rebellion in Upper Canada in 1837.
  • They formed the first military unit in British Columbia, in 1860.
  • Soldiers like William Hall, James Post and Lancelot Joseph Bertrand received many of the highest honours and awards given to soldiers.