Photo by HC Dodge for Sponagle (GE Sponagle, Truro), 1916. States Collection Nova Scotia Archives 1981-337 https://novascotia.ca/archives/2construction/archives.asp?ID=1

Introduction

When the First World War began, in August of 1914 Canada was a member of the British Empire. Loyalty and a strong desire to protect the mother country coupled with high unemployment meant that recruitment offices had more volunteers than what was originally required for the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.  Black Canadians and other minority groups were quick to volunteer, unfortunately racist sentiments prevailed and most of these men were turned away.  Black Canadians did not accept this and continued to try and enlist.

There was much protest within minority communities and at the insistence of Black representatives the issue was even brought up in the House of Commons. The fact that recruits were accepted at the discretion of commanding officers meant that the government could maintain that there was no official policy preventing Black volunteers from joining, and nothing more was done.

To read an extensive list of correspondences between government/military and community members regarding the enlistment of Black men in the War see this site: http://ns1758.ca/ruck/conbat2a.html

 

Archives of Ontario War Poster Collection
Reference Code: C 233-2-4-0-203
Archives of Ontario, I0016181http://www.archives.gov.on.ca/en/explore/online/posters/recruitment.aspx#sthash.qUPYXlzO.dpuf

Blacks and other men of colour would soon realize the “men” these posters asked for did not include them.


Recruitment poster for the No. 2 Construction Battalion. (Courtesy Esther Clark Wright Archives at Acadia University/ 1900.237-WWI/31)

Prior to July 1916 most Black men who attempted to enlist had been turned away. As casualty rates grew and new recruits dwindled the Canadian Government began to actively recruit Black men. They were placed in a segregated labour company which was overseen by White officers.


The No. 2 Construction Battalion is Formed

As the war progressed the number of casualties was outnumbering the number of new recruits. Recruitment restrictions were relaxed and Black men were accepted.  Popular stereotypes at the time meant that military leaders often thought Black soldiers were unfit to fight alongside White troops. It was decided that the best solution would be to create a segregated Black Battalion.  On July 15, 1916 the No. 2 Construction Battalion was officially formed. This unit was the first and only segregated Black unit in the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.

Once permission had been given for the Battalion to be formed, the initial troops were stationed in Pictou. However Commanding Officer Sutherland believed it would be easier to find recruits if troops were stationed in a community with a Black population. The Battalion then moved to Truro for additional training and recruitment before leaving for England.

The role of a construction battalion was to support the front by building roads, railways and bridges and completing forestry projects as well as other labour intensive tasks. Some Black men did find their way to the front, however for the most part the Black men who enlisted found themselves in supporting roles.

When plans were being made for the No. 2 to leave Halifax for England it was suggested that the men in the Battalion be sent in a separate transport ship, without escort, so as to not offend the White soldiers. The No. 2 was to leave Halifax during some of the most dangerous times for German submarine attacks. Thankfully the Royal Navy rejected this suggestion and the No. 2 Construction Battalion left Halifax in the company of other military recruits.

The Battalion left Halifax on March 28th 1917 and arrived in Liverpool England ten days later. The Battalion had 605 recruits as well as officers.

Nineteen of these men were from the Digby/Weymouth area.


Who were the Men from Digby and Weymouth who served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion?


Digby, Southville, Weymouth, Digby Co. Nova Scotia

Digby Men

 

Southville Men



Weymouth Men


Life at War

James Elmer Cromwell from Southville, Digby County enlisted in the Construction Battalion on October 13, 1916 and had this to say about his experience:

“I was only sixteen years old when I joined up, but I told them I was eighteen. I wanted to go with the rest of the boys…

It definitely was a satisfying experience. I would not have missed it for anything, and I would certainly do it again if I had to. Once you got in the army, you learned to take care of yourself. You grew up in a hurry.”

Calvin Ruck, The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret, (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 1987), 47-48.


When they arrived in England the men of the No. 2 joined the Forestry Corps in France. They worked side by side with White soldiers but had separate living quarters, were treated in a separate wing of the La Joux Hospital and were detained in a separate compound for military discipline. While there is no doubt that the men in this battalion faced racism and discrimination, they fared better than their American counterparts who were segregated at all times, were required to be supervised when they left their base, were not permitted to visit restaurants or other public places, and were paid far less than White soldiers (The No. 2 men received the same pay as white men doing the same job).

Although these men were not fighting at the front the conditions were hard and the work was dangerous. Medical records for Stephen Johnson, a Weymouth man, show that he was hospitalized on November 20, 1917 due to frostbite. Other records from the Battalion show that several other men died of pneumonia and other diseases while posted in France.

5 men from the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Availble from https://ww1sacrifice.com/2015/07/05/private-james-doval-stewart/men-of-no-2-construction-battalion-2/ 


Research suggests that Stephen Johnson is pictured fourth from the left in the above picture. This photo was later used in a commemorative stamp produced by Canada Post in order to recognize and celebrate the contributions of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.  Another interesting fact about Stephen Johnson is that his marriage certificate indicates that upon returning from the war he was married by the Rev. William White who was likely the only Black Officer in the British Military during World War 1.


LT.-COL. D.H. SUTHERLAND COLLECTION, RIVER JOHN, N.S

Reverend William White

Reverend William White was born in 1874, to former slaves. He came to Nova Scotia early in the twentieth century where he studied theology and became the second Black person to graduate from Acadia University. He was later ordained as a minister with the African Baptist Churches of Nova Scotia.

When The No. 2 Battalion was formed White became it's chaplain. He also became the first Black officer in the British Military, and the only Black officer during World War 1. Throughout the war White was a strong advocate for the men who served below him. Although he was an officer, White was not immune to racism. White and the No. 2 were stationed in the Jura district of France but another chaplain had to be sent into the area to serve the White Units who would not accept Rev. White’s ministry.

White went on to become a minister at Cornwallis St. Baptist Church in Halifax where his sermons were frequently broadcast on the radio. He and his wife had a large family and have many notable children and grandchildren, including Portia White the internationally acclaimed singer.


What happened when the War ended?

"And with a cheery smile and wave of the hand he wandered into an unknown land"

Personal inscription on a headstone, Champgagnole Communal Cemetery, France

The Armistice of November 11, 1918 formally ended the First World War, and in early 1919 the No. 2 returned to Canada and was officially disbanded on September 15, 1920.

Census, marriage and other records show that 17 of the 19 Digby/Weymouth men returned from Europe. They are often listed as labourers, millwrights and farmers. Several moved to other towns including Yarmouth and Truro.

Unfortunately two of these men did not return. According to the Honour Role found on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website Reuben Alexander Smith died on April 13, 1917 and is buried in the Liverpool Cemetery in Lancashire, United Kingdom.  Arthur Benson Cromwell of Weymouth died of wounds on June 16, 1918 and is buried in Champgagnole Communal Cemetery in France.

To see burial information and a commemorative certificate for Private A.B. Cromwell produced by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission visit this site:  http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/325717/CROMWELL,%20A%20B


Conclusion

Like other recruits, Black men wished to join the military and serve during World War 1 for a variety of reasons, a loyalty to King and Country, a young person’s desire for exploration and adventure and also in hopes of ensuring a future which would be more equitable for people in Black communities. Unfortunately racist stereotypes emerged mostly unscathed from the Great War. However, the men from Digby and Weymouth who served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion are heroes on two fronts, first they helped to defend and protect their country despite racial prejudices that asked them to do so only when the supply of white men began to dwindle and also on account of helping Canada move closer towards racial equality .