The poster read, “Wanted at once, 300 men for No. 2 Construction Battalion for coloured men of Canada.”
The unit was formed in Nova Scotia, home to more than a third of this country’s blacks.
…In the early 1900’s, during the First World War they weren’t always wanted until it became necessary to form an all black non-combat battalion.
Patriotic Black Canadians had tried to enlist to support the military…but were turned away, unwanted. But by the summer of 1916 there were a mountain of casualties overseas and fewer and fewer volunteers at home. The Canadian Forces needed soldiers whatever their colour. So on July 5 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was created, the only all black military unit ever formed in Canada but, contrary to what they thought; their service was not what they expected it to be…
Most of the black recruits wanted to fight the enemy, not build roads. “The army let us join one said, but they wouldn’t let us fight instead the gave us shovels, not rifles”.
The soldiers were all black, but the officers were white with one exception; the Battalion Chaplain Captain William White the son of a slave. White had come up from Virginia to attend theology school at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and stayed on as a baptist minister and in 1916 he was the only black officer in the British forces. Recruits to the Battalion came in from across Canada and
in March 1917 the battalion sailed for England, made it across the English Channel, entered France and most spent the war there in the forested mountains logging, milling and shipping the wood that was needed for the war effort. The men of No. 2 would build bridges and roads, defuse landmines and retrieve the wounded from the battlefield.
Then came Conscription – The Military Service Act that became law August 29 1917, and ironically the black men who had been turned away because of their colour were now required by law to enlist. Regardless they served with pride and courage and distinguish themselves in service and were officially disbanded on September 15, 1920. The generations of descendants from that era who have served in the military is a proud one.
Through the years the No. 2 Construction Battalion was soon forgotten until Nova Scotia born author and human rights activist Calvin Ruck, in 1986 published Canada’s Black Battalion No. 2 Construction, 1916-1920 a history of the Black veterans of WW1
In July 1993, a granite memorial was unveiled in Pictou Nova Scotia in their honour. This is the site of an annual service that commemorates the men of the Black Battalion who served our country abroad, despite and prejudice they experienced. As well in February 2016, Canada Post issued a first day cover and a commemorative stamp for Black History Month. –PD