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When looking at Canada in the First World War, the pictures tend to tell the story of white Canadians fighting in battles. The stories of the soldiers also focus on white Canadians, but there were many others who fought, and died for their country. This week, I was going to look specifically at the No. 2 Construction Battalion but I decided that I would expand it to look at the Canada’s black soldiers during the First World War.
On Aug. 29, I will be looking at Canada’s Indigenous soldiers, who also played a huge role.
Throughout Canada’s history, Black soldiers have played a role, from the War of 1812, all the way up to the Boer War and beyond. In fact, William Hall, the first Black person to ever be awarded the Victoria Cross, was from Nova Scotia.
In the 1850s, Black settlers moved from California to Vancouver Island for a better life. About 50 of the new immigrants organized themselves into the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps, an all-Black volunteer force in the city. The corps would disband in 1865.
When the First World War started, and Canadians enlisted in huge numbers beginning in August of 1914, there was a focus on getting white Canadians, specifically those born in Canada or who had come over from Britain and Ireland. Black Canadians saw the war and wanted to do their part as well, and they would begin to enlist too but even though they were looking to serve just as white Canadians were, they were faced with discrimination almost immediately. In Canada the black population at the time numbered about 20,000, and over the course of the war, 1,200 or six per cent of the total population, served in the war. The number would have likely been far higher without racism and an effort to prevent Black soldiers from serving.
Lt. Col. George Fowler, the commander of the 104th Battalion, would state in his attempt to remove 20 Black soldiers from his regiment, quote:
“I have been fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits and I do not think it fair to these men that they should have to mingle with Negroes.”
Another officer would state, quote:
“Would Canadian Negroes make good fighting men? I do not think so.”
One Black soldier would attempt to enlist and said that he would like to kill some Germans and he was told he could not serve with any white regiment. A group of 50 Black Canadians in Sydney, Nova Scotia attempted to enlist together and they were told, quote:
“This is not for you fellows. This is a white man’s war.”
Many of those who went overseas for Canada, despite facing intense racism, also gave their lives. Trooper Robert Randolph Simms from Nova Scotia had worked as a barber before enlisting. As a member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, he would die of his wounds in Northern France when his regiment was attacked by planes.
Private Nelson Harris from London, Ontario was a member of the 52nd Battalion when he was killed by an enemy shell that hit near him at Bourlon Wood.
Private Harry Andrews Burk was a farmer in Ontario when he joined the 116th Battalion. He was killed instantly when a German bullet hit him in the head.
Prejudice at the time made it very hard for Black Canadians to join up in the opening years of the First World War, but they would persist for the chance to serve their country and they would pressure the federal government to allow them. Even for those who were able to serve, wearing the Canadian uniform did not make things any better. In Nova Scotia, for example, Black soldiers were still forced to sit upstairs in the movie theatre.
The Canadian government had an official policy that Black soldiers be accepted into the army, but at recruiting stations, the vast majority were rejected. Many white soldiers who had enlisted also stated that they would refuse to sign up, or fight alongside Black soldiers.
Saint John Member of Parliament, William Pugsley would raise the issue of the discrimination facing Black Canadians attempting to enlist in the House of Commons but he was told that there was no Dominion legislation authorizing discrimination against Black Canadians.
In November 1915, J.R.B. Whitney, the editor of the Toronto Black newspaper the Canadian Observer, wrote to Sir Sam Hughes asking if he would accept a platoon of 150 Black men provided it maintained that strength through the war. Hughes replied, quote:
“These people can form a platoon in any Battalion now. There is nothing in the world to stop them.”
Whitney then began to advertise in his newspaper and was able to enlist volunteers for the platoon.
The Windsor Star would report, quote:
“In every issue of the paper there appeared on the first page a strongly worded appeal headed “Call for Recruits” and below it a blank form to be filled in by each prospective volunteer. So in addition to his other duties, Mr. Whitney became a very efficient recruiting officer. Week after week he urged the cause through his paper and responses came quickly.”
In January 1916, he reported to Sir Sam Hughes that he had enlisted many Toronto recruits and added in a request to second a Black enlisted man for a recruitment tour of southwestern Ontario. Hughes would pass this request to W.E. Hodgins, the adjutant general, who found that while there were plenty of recruits, no arrangement had been made to find a battalion commander to command the platoon. He would say that it was doubtful that any commander would accept a Black platoon into a, quote:
“White man’s Battalion.”
Hodgins then denied the request to form a Black Canadian unit.
On March 15, Whitney received a letter from a Toronto recruiting officer that stated no commanding officer was willing to enlist them and the plan would have to be abandoned. Whitney would go to Hodgins and state that he had 40 volunteers and he could not tell them to disband. Hodgins then contacted General Logie and asked him to find a unit that would admit the platoon. Logie then conducted a canvas of his district and all the battalion commanders rejected the idea. Several commanders stated that by admitting Black Canadians, it would discourage white recruitment and increase dissatisfaction among men who had already enlisted. The commander of the 48th Highlanders would state, quote:
“We have, being a kilted regiment, always drawn the line at taking coloured men.”
With the growing push to get more recruits, many politicians came out in favour of Black troops. General Willoughby Gwatkin would be tasked by the government to write a report on the enlistment of Black Canadians into the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He would create a memorandum that was very much against Black recruitment. It would state, quote:
“The civilized negro is vain and imitative. In Canada he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty. In the trenches, he is not likely to make a good fighter, and the average white man will not associate with him on terms of equality.”
The memorandum would continue on, detailing what General Gwatkin felt about Black troops in France. It states, quote:
“In France, in the firing line, there would be no place for a Black battalion. It would be eyed askance, it would crowd out a white battalion, it would be difficult to reinforce.”
Throughout the country, Black Canadian community leaders led recruitment drives. By November 1916, recruitment drives were being conducted outside of Nova Scotia, including a tour with government funds from Montreal to Toronto to raise recruits. In Windsor Ontario in January 1917, several Black Americans agreed to enlist. In fact, over the course of the war, over 100 Black Americans enlisted in the Canadian Army. Captain Gayfer in Edmonton would conduct tours in the province and speak at Black churches to raise enlistment. He would then move to Winnipeg to continue his efforts and he left a Black enlisted man in charge of the Edmonton office.
The 106th Battalion would accept several Black soldiers, at least at first. As the recruitment process began for the battalion, protests began over the enlistment of Black Canadians. As a result, only 16 Black volunteers were accepted into the battalion, including a man named Jeremiah Jones, who I will talk about later.
Others would help in different ways. Sam Langford, one of the greatest Black boxers to not only come out of Canada, but to ever compete, would begin to teach boxing to Black Canadian soldiers before they would be shipped out.
In 1917 when conscription came into law, the Black soldiers who had tried to enlist years earlier and were refused, now found they were bound by law to serve. There were some, who were angry over being refused when they had tried to volunteer, that refused to respond to the new law. In an odd irony, some of those who did not go along with the law were then taken off the street and held against their will until they enlisted.
No. 2 Construction Battalion
For two years, with lobbying by Black soldiers and others, the Canadian government agreed to create a black unit.
On May 11, 1916, the British War Office would inform the Governor General that it had approved the formation of the all-Black battalion. On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion would be officially formed in Nova Scotia. This battalion was the first large Black military unit in Canadian history and recruitment would take place across the country. While most of the enlistments came from Nova Scotia, some came from New Brunswick and Ontario, as well as the western provinces and even the United States. There were some rules that the government put in place, the most obvious being that the soldiers in the battalion could not have guns.
The Victoria Daily Times would report on Oct. 18, 1916, quote:
“Although the recruiting has only just started, large numbers have already enlisted and it will only be a short while before the Battalion is up to strength. Engineer and construction work is most important work and the call is urgent for more men.”
The Edmonton Journal would state, quote:
“The men enlisting in the colored battalion will be in a position to add glory to their race and add to the ever increasing respect in which they are held throughout the British Empire. The British, with their love of fair play, have fought for the freedom of the colored people for many years.”
According to an article in the Montreal Gazette, during the recruitment drive, only Black Canadians were accepted into the battalion and those with construction work experience were preferred.
In Ottawa, one individual who joined the battalion was Charles Edward Stewart, who worked as a porter at the Intercolonial Hotel. When the First World War began, he left his job to join an Ottawa Battalion and was accepted and he went with the battalion to Bermuda but was soon transferred to another battalion, and was then transferred to a third battalion. At this point he sailed for England and it was in England he developed a severe fever and was sent back to Canada and discharged. He recovered and reenlisted, gaining the rank of sergeant.
Frank Seaners was another individual who had experience on ships when the war broke out. With his military experience from the Boer War, he quickly enlisted.
Reverend William White, who would serve as the battalions chaplain, would play a leading role in the formation of the unit. He was also made an honorary captain for his efforts, which made him one of the few Black commissioned officers in the Canadian Army at the time. While the battalion was all-black, the officers, with the exception of Reverend White, were white.
Reverend White was the son of a slave who had come from Virginia and settled in Nova Scotia in 1900 where he studied theology. His daughter, Portia White, would go on to become one of Canada’s greatest concert singers in the 1940s and 1950s.
The unit was commanded by Lt. Col. Daniel Sutherland, a railroad contractor and half the soldiers came from Nova Scotia, while the rest came from Ontario and elsewhere in the country.
On Nov. 21, 1916, the battalion was inspected by F.B. McCurdy, the acting minister of the militia. The soldiers paraded with their band and marched to the depot with their commanding officer Colonel Sutherland. McCurdy then addressed the soldiers and stated his satisfaction on the splendid appearance of the battalion. He would then that he had heard, quote:
“Good reports he had received on their excellent behavior and pointed out that in this great struggle for humanity and freedom the colored citizen had shown the world that he was ready to stand side by side with his white comrade and brother and do his bit and help win a glorious victory for the allies.”
Things did not get off to a great start for the battalion. On Dec. 21, 1916, the Jockey Club Barn, where the No. 2 Construction Battalion was quartered, burned to the ground. Several officers and soldiers lost trunks and clothing.
Tasked with non-combat support roles, over 600 Black Canadians would serve with the battalion over the course of its existence during the war. At first, the battalion served just in Canada but in March of 1917 it boarded the SS Southland and journeyed to Liverpool. There was an idea put forward to send the Black soldiers over on their own, segregated ship, but the navy rejected this idea.
Once they reached England, they were confined to their camp and not allowed to fraternize with white soldiers, or even go out into public.
On May 17, the battalion soldiers were sent to France where they served with the Canadian Forestry Corps. In that role, they helped to provide lumber that was needed for the trenches, as well as for bridges and other items that were vital to the logistic of wars. They would also help construct railways, roads and the trenches themselves.
J.R.B Whitney would write quote:
“In this terrific struggle every man’s help is needed and every true British subject will do his best, regardless of color or creed. This is a construction battalion. It is more important than a fighting battalion because bridges, railway and artillery roads which have been destroyed by the enemy in retreat must be rebuilt, so that the fighting men may be supplied with food and munitions of the war.”
Despite the fact that they served a vital role in France, they were still not treated equally by the Canadian Army. They were given equipment and clothing that was below the quality given to other men in the army. With poor clothing that wasn’t ideal for the elements, many in the battalion would fall sick. When they did fall sick, the only doctor who would help them was Dr. Dan Murray, the grandfather of Canadian icon Anne Murray. When Dr. Murray was away, the rest of the medical staff would refuse to administer care to the soldiers.
Some of the soldiers would go from the battalion to serve as combat soldiers. Ethelbert Christian and Seymour Tyler would serve at Vimy Ridge and Tyler would be awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. In the Second World War, he would receive the Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and the Defence Medal. Other battalions that would have Black volunteers included the 25th Battalion, the 102nd Battalion, the First Quebec Regiment and the 116th Battalion.
By the time that Nov. 11, 1918 came along, 21 of the 605 members of the battalion had died on the battlefield.
When the First World War ended, the men would sail back to Canada and returned to their civilian lives. Even after the war, there were issues with racism. On Jan. 7, 1919, a race riot broke out when an unidentified Black sergeant-major of the No. 2 Construction Battalion tried to arrest an insolent white soldier. White soldiers then attacked the men of the No. 2 Construction Battalion as they paraded. In the fight, several white soldiers were injured and various Black soldiers were hit by flying rocks.
In 1920, the unit was disbanded. The efforts of the battalion would not be formally recognized until 62 years later, in 1982. In 1992, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was designated as an event of national historic significance.
It wasn’t just Black Canadians doing their part overseas either. Back home, they would work in factories and even while facing racism on the job, they built the bombs and weapons that helped Canada and the Allies win the First World War. Many also took part in patriotic activities such as raising funds for the war effort.
Today, for my soldier profile, I am going to look at arguably the most famous Black Canadian soldier of the First World War, Jeremiah Jones.
Born on March 30, 1858 in Nova Scotia, Jones would enlist as a private with the 106th Battalion on June 19, 1916. In order to enlist, despite 58, he lied about his age and stated he was only 39. He would join his regiment on Feb. 9, 1917 and was sent to England. After fighting at Passchendaele, he would then serve in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
At Vimy Ridge, his fellow troops were pinned down by machine gun fire and he volunteered to attack the gun emplacement. He managed to reach the machine gun nest and tossed in a grenade, killing several soldiers. The rest of the Germans surrendered to him and he forced them to carry the machine gun back across the battlefield to his regiment, where he told them to put it at the feet of his commanding officer.
For his bravery, Jones was recommended by his commanding officer for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but it was never awarded to him, likely because of his race. It should be noted that while several veterans have reported and supported the claim he was recommended for the medal, no records have shown if he ever received it. The medal is second only to the Victoria Cross in terms of rewards for valour.
Later in the battle, he would be wounded and would spend a considerable time in the hospital.
Back home in Nova Scotia, his hometown and his fellow soldiers would continually recommend him for the medal for his heroics in the war. One of his fellow soldiers would write a letter that stated Jones, quote:
“had captured a German machine gun, forced the crew to carry it back to our lines and depositing it at the feet of the CO said, Is this thing any good?”
Jones would die on Nov. 23, 1950.
Calvin Ruck, who was also a Black Canadian from Nova Scotia, who served in the Canadian Senate and was an anti-racism activist, continually lobbied through his adult life to get Jones his medal and for recognition of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Ruck would die in 2004, not achieving this goal of getting Jones his medal.
On Sept. 9, 2000, the Last Post Fund erected a grave stone for Jones with full military honours. Finally, on Feb. 22, 2010, the Canadian Government posthumously awarded Jones the Canadian Forces Medallion for Distinguished Service.
Nova Scotia’s Lt. Governor Maryann Francis would say at the ceremony, quote:
“Private Jones served with honour even though as a Black man he did not enjoy all the rights and privileges that White citizens did.”
I wanted to profile another soldier who also did his part during the war. Ethelbert Christian was born in the United States and would settle in Canada and enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 1915. On April 9, 1917, Christian was serving with the Winnipeg Grenadiers during the Battle of Vimy Ridge when a shell buried him in a trench. Both of his legs and arms were crushed by debris and he was trapped for two days. When he was found, he was barely alive and as his stretcher bearers carried him back to the trenches, they were killed by enemy fire.
Christian would survive but gangrene would take both his arms and legs. After returning to Canada, he would stay positive about his situation and married a volunteer aide who worked at the Toronto hospital where was healing.
Due to his extensive injuries he required full-time caregiving and his wife would petition the federal government for assistance. This would lead to the creation of the Attendance Allowance, which provides disabled veterans funding to pay for caregiving needs. Christian would also create a prosthesis that allowed him to correspond with other veterans.
In July of 1936, he would attend the dedication of the new Canadian National Vimy Memorial by King Edward VIII. In 1939, he met King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited Toronto in 1939.
Living his life with artificial limbs, he would pass away in 1954.
Information comes from Veterans Affairs, Global News, Legion Magazine, Wikipedia, TVO, Black Canadians In Uniform, Race and Recruitment in World War One, Windsor Star, Winnipeg Tribune, Edmonton Journal, Montreal Gazette, Toronto Sun, Demobilization Riots in the CEF,