Black on the bat­tle­field: Canada’s for­got­ten bat­tal­ion

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JES­SICA LEEDER

Told they could en­list if they could muster enough men to form their own seg­re­gated bat­tal­ion, sol­diers in the No. 2 Con­struc­tion Bat­tal­ion suf­fered some of the most op­pres­sive con­di­tions dur­ing the war, but re­ceived lit­tle recog­ni­tion for their sac­ri­fice and ser­vice

The year was 1914 and while the war was es­ca­lat­ing in Eu­rope, a dif­fer­ent strug­gle took root in Canada. Young black men de­ter­mined to serve their coun­try – men who had left jobs and up­rooted fam­i­lies in pur­suit of a mil­i­tary unit that might ac­cept them – were be­ing re­jected by re­cruiters from Nova Sco­tia to Bri­tish Columbia. One com­mand­ing of­fi­cer in New Brunswick turned away 20 healthy black re­cruits at once be­cause he be­lieved his white sol­diers should not “have to min­gle with Ne­groes,” ac­cord­ing to a let­ter he wrote to his su­pe­ri­ors in Hal­i­fax.

This war, black Cana­di­ans were told, had no use for peo­ple of their colour.

That un­of­fi­cial pol­icy kept most black Cana­di­ans from en­list­ing for the bet­ter part of two years, al­though some did man­age to con­vince sym­pa­thetic com­mand­ing of­fi­cers to al­low them into mostly white units. Black lead­ers and their white sup­port­ers were un­will­ing to ac­cept be­ing shut out en masse, though. Af­ter two years of lob­by­ing – fight­ing to fight – a com­pro­mise was cau­tiously forged. Black Cana­di­ans were told they could en­list if they could muster enough men to form their own, seg­re­gated bat­tal­ion, which would be based out of the way in tiny Pic­tou, a com­mu­nity on Nova Sco­tia’s North Shore that had no black res­i­dents.

Still, the plan was to re­cruit more than 1,000 men from across the coun­try from Canada and, ul­ti­mately, the United States and the Bri­tish West Indies.

But there was a catch: The bat­tal­ion’s sol­diers would not be given guns. In­stead, they would be out­fit­ted with shov­els and forestry tools. In­stead of fight­ing along­side Al­lied forces on the front lines, the Black Bat­tal­ion – of­fi­cially the No. 2 Con­struc­tion Bat­tal­ion, CEF, and the only seg­re­gated bat­tal­ion formed – would ship out as a non-com­bat force trained to dig trenches, carry the dead, build pris­ons and fell trees in France’s Joux for­est.

“In France, in the fir­ing line, there is no place for a black bat­tal­ion,” wrote Ma­jor-Gen­eral W.G. Gwatkin, Chief of the Gen­eral Staff in Ot­tawa, who de­rided black re­cruits in the same an­nounce­ment he made to en­able their ser­vice. Hav­ing black sol­diers on the front line “would be eyed askance,” he wrote. “It would crowd out a white bat­tal­ion; and it would be dif­fi­cult to re­in­force.”

Their sec­ond-class sta­tus was one of many dif­fi­cult chal­lenges faced by the Black Bat­tal­ion, whose sol­diers suf­fered some of the most op­pres­sive con­di­tions dur­ing the war but re­ceived lit­tle recog­ni­tion for their sac­ri­fice and ser­vice. They were not hon­oured as heroes when they re­turned to Hal­i­fax in 1919 nor when the bat­tal­ion was of­fi­cially dis­banded in 1920. Their story went largely un­ac­knowl­edged un­til 1986, when Sen­a­tor Calvin Ruck pub­lished his book, The Black Bat­tal­ion: Canada’s Best Kept Mil­i­tary Se­cret. The thin vol­ume was the cul­mi­na­tion of years of painstak­ing re­search. Even Mr. Ruck, who was born in Syd­ney, N.S., had never heard tell of the No. 2 Con­struc­tion Bat­tal­ion.

Formed in July, 1916, the unit re­cruited just more than 600 men, in­clud­ing about 300 from Nova Sco­tia, 350 from On­tario and a col­lec­tion of West­ern Cana­dian, Amer­i­can and in­ter­na­tional re­cruits. Their first as­sign­ment was to dig up rail lines across New Brunswick. They even­tu­ally left from Hal­i­fax in March, 1917, on the troop­ship South­land. They landed in Eng­land and dug trenches for troops train­ing there and re­paired roads; within months, they were at­tached to the Cana­dian Forestry Corps and sent to France for log­ging and milling work, to carry out road re­pairs and to haul sup­plies. “They were viewed as be­ing men­tally and phys­i­cally in­fe­rior. They joined in ob­scu­rity. They trained in ob­scu­rity. They fought and served in ob­scu­rity,” said Dou­glas Ruck, a Hal­i­fax-based lawyer and Sen­a­tor Ruck’s son. He re­calls the fam­ily din­ing ta­ble be­ing blan­keted for years with the archival records his fa­ther had col­lected to piece to­gether the Black Bat­tal­ion’s story.

It is as much about their ab­sence from most Cana­dian his­tory books as it is about their role in the war. Al­though her fa­ther, Joseph Par­ris, served in the No. 2, Sylvia Par­ris grew up with no knowl­edge of the bat­tal­ion. She learned much of the story af­ter Mr. Ruck pub­lished his book and says it has helped her un­der­stand why her fa­ther and the rest of the bat­tal­ion rarely told their sto­ries, which were nei­ther heroic nor pride­ful. “They went to the war in the face of sys­temic and in­di­vid­ual racism. They went be­cause their coun­try, how­ever they came to it, was their coun­try, too. They had fam­i­lies to pro­tect,” she said.

“They came back to those same sys­temic is­sues. And they kept to them­selves as a means of sur­vival.”

Rus­sell Grosse, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Black Cul­tural Cen­tre for Nova Sco­tia, said few stayed in touch af­ter the war de­spite the fact many lived near each other. In 1982, when Mr. Ruck and the BBC held a cer­e­mony in Hal­i­fax to hon­our nine re­main­ing vet­er­ans of the bat­tal­ion, the men were prac­ti­cally strangers. But the recog­ni­tion they re­ceived that night, Mr. Grosse said, showed the vet­er­ans and their fam­i­lies that they de­served a legacy.

“They were so abused and mis­used along the way. Ev­ery day was a strug­gle for them just to be a part of the or­ga­ni­za­tion,” said Ge­orge Bor­den, a his­to­rian who grew up with sev­eral Black Bat­tal­ion vet­er­ans in his Nova Sco­tia com­mu­nity. “They were the last to get sup­plied. They were the last to get paid. Th­ese were young men, but they were men,” he said. “It com­pletely de­stroyed their self-pride.”

Of­fi­cial recog­ni­tion of their ser­vice came in 1993, when Pic­tou’s Mar­ket Wharf, the site of the bat­tal­ion’s first head­quar­ters, was de­clared a na­tional his­toric site.

Now, the job for the dwin­dling num­ber of peo­ple who know the bat­tal­ion’s story is to get it into his­tory books and en­sure their legacy does not dis­ap­pear.

“I just want to re­spect them as hav­ing wanted to do the same job as ev­ery­one else wanted to do,” Mr. Bor­den said. “If any­one can be re­mem­bered, they should be re­mem­bered like­wise.”


The No. 2 Con­struc­tion Bat­tal­ion was founded in July, 1916, un­der the com­mand of a white of­fi­cer, Lieu­tenant-Colonel D.H. Suther­land. The bat­tal­ion’s role as a con­struc­tion unit was to sup­port the front lines, build­ing roads and bridges, de­fus­ing land mines and bring­ing out the wounded.The bat­tal­ion was of­fi­cially dis­banded on Sept. 15, 1920.

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