Day 6

How a 100-year-old diary kept alive the legacy of Canada's black battalion

The No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada's first and only all-black military unit, is set to be honoured at a ceremony in France. Anthony Sherwood, grandson of the battalion's chaplain William White, recounts the stories in the Reverend's diary.

William White kept detailed notes while serving with Nova Scotia's No. 2 Construction Battalion

This image from the fall of 1916 shows members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada's first military unit made up primarily of black personnel. (Nova Scotia Archives)

Ten black Canadian soldiers who died in France during the First World War are being honoured on Saturday. The ceremony will take place in the small town of Supt, France.

The soldiers were members of Nova Scotia's No. 2 Construction Battalion. Established in 1916, it was Canada's first and only all-black battalion in the war.

The battalion was 605 men strong and nearly half were from Nova Scotia.

An important account of the battalion's history is contained in the diary of its Chaplain, Reverend William White.

"He bore his soul. He wrote everything that he was feeling: the pain, the hurt," White's grandnephew Anthony Sherwood told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong. In 2001, Sherwood premiered a documentary film based on White's diary called Honour Before Glory.

An artistic rendering of what the completed monument will look like when it is unveiled in the Supt cemetery on Sept. 29. (Fondation du Patrimoine)

Sherwood will be at the Supt ceremony, where a memorial will be unveiled naming the battalion members on a list of 29 forestry engineers buried in or near the town.

"I'm getting shivers already just thinking about it," Sherwood said.

Sherwood found his great uncle's diary in 1998.

"I opened it and began to read and I couldn't put it down because he wrote everything that he saw that was happening to these black soldiers. It just blew me away because nobody knew what was happening to these soldiers while they were over in France. It's not in the military records," he said.

White's diaries show he was a father figure to the young men and boys in his battalion, some of whom had lied about their ages to enlist.

100 years ago, Canada's 'Black Battalion' set sail for WWI and made history

5 years ago
Duration 1:17
No. 2 Construction Battalion was Canada's first and only segregated military unit. Nearly half of the battalion's 600 members were from Nova Scotia.

Sherwood said White was instrumental in fighting for the rights of black people to enlist, writing letters to then-prime minister Robert Borden.

According to Sherwood, men in the battalion still faced plenty of racism within the military. He cited an incident where they had to fight to get a ship and escort to France.

Problems continued once the men got to Europe, Sherwood said.

"They were a labour battalion and their job was to cut lumber, build huts and dig trenches for the white soldiers. So they got sick and when they got sick, the white doctors refused to take care of them. A couple of them died because of that." 

Calvin Ruck and the Construction Battalion

29 years ago
Duration 3:55
Calvin Ruck campaigned for recognition of the contribution made by the Canadian all-black regiment, the Construction Battalion, in the First World War.

"My great uncle talked about this town of Supt in France a great deal and some of the soldiers that died, who were not taken care of properly, are buried in that cemetery in Supt. And so I am actually going to be walking on the same ground that my great uncle walked on 100 years ago," Sherwood said.


To hear the full interview with Anthony Sherwood, download our podcast or click listen above.

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