On May 17, 1917, the newly renamed No. 2 Construction Company (No. 2 CC, formerly the No. 2 Construction Battalion) arrived at Boulogne amongst a convoy escorted by Royal Navy destroyers and the dirigible Silver Queen. They proceeded east to the area of Lajoux in the Jura mountains, the rolling, wooded foothills of the Alps, joining No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). Assuming significant responsibilities that included construction and maintenance of waterworks, maintenance of roads and overall responsibility for the district’s shipping and receiving, they quickly became an integral component of the district’s operations. In doing so they were breaking new ground for the Canadian military: No. 2 CC was comprised largely of African Canadians, officered, with one precarious exception, by European Canadians and this was a first for the Canadian forces.
During the War of 1812, Captain Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men fought at Queenston Heights and Fort George. African British North Americans marched to arms with the Victoria Rifles (Nova Scotia) and the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Corps (Victoria), briefly, in the early 1860s. However, a gap of 50 years preceded authorization of No. 2 Construction Battalion on July 5, 1916 as a predominantly African Canadian unit within the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).
Initially, African Canadians found it virtually impossible to enlist with volunteers plentiful and recruiting offices able to be selective. In 1916, a confluence of circumstances — increasing British demands for manpower and a recruiting crisis in Canada — overcame the racism and institutional opposition to African Canadian enlistment. A segregated unit, not destined for combat, represented a delicate compromise between British demands for labour battalions of navvies, institutional and individual opposition to African Canadian enlistment, and African Canadian demands to participate.
In the opening months of the war Canadians flocked to the recruiting offices and targets were quickly met and exceeded. Prospective volunteers could be rejected if they failed to satisfy a diverse array of conditions and ‘race,’ as it was then termed, was one such criterion.
Minister of Militia Sam Hughes was a hard-charging Orangeman with opinions about everything and a seasoned professional at hardball politicking. Astonishingly, he was unable to address this issue of African Canadian enlistment as, he insisted, it was beyond his control. The official explanation held that it was the responsibility of each individual commanding officer (CO) to determine if his unit would attest African Canadians: “Under instructions already issued, the selection of Officers and men for the second contingent is entirely in the hands of COs, and their selections or rejections are not interfered with from Headquarters.” Unfortunately, virtually to a man, battalion COs refused to accept African Canadians.
Their excuses ran the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. The CO of the 173rd Battalion (Canadian Highlanders) wrote simply, “Sorry we cannot see our way to accept [African Canadians] as these men would not look good in kilts,” an opinion seconded by the adjutant of the 48th Highlanders. Others complained it was an undue imposition on European Canadians to expect them to serve alongside African Canadians and would even put a further damper on already faltering European Canadian recruiting. The minister’s refusal to intervene meant that widespread racism amongst local officers largely barred African Canadians from enlisting.
General W.G. Gwatkin, Chief of the General Staff, was extremely racist and vehemently opposed to African Canadian enlistment. His disdain played a key role in the military’s unofficial colour line. A memorandum dated April 13, 1916, in the midst of the recruiting crisis reveals his inmost beliefs. “The civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada he is not impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches he is not likely to make a good fighter.” Moreover, he continued, “in the firing line, there is no place for a black battalion in the CEF. It would be eyed askance; it would crowd out a white battalion; and it would be difficult to reinforce.” Only the last excuse has even a grain of truth, but everything else is racist claptrap.
Gwatkin’s contempt was laid bare when he attempted to influence the arrangements for the battalion’s transport to Europe. To expedite their travel and quarantine them from European Canadian troops, Gwatkin proposed to the Navy that their troopship, the SS Southland, sail alone and unescorted in mid-March 1917. At the time the convoy system had already been introduced. Moreover, the spring of 1917 was the absolute nadir of the submarine war in the North Atlantic, with ships being sunk on an almost daily basis. The risks were outrageous and only the Navy’s refusal — “The ship cannot possibly proceed without an escort” — euchred Gwatkin’s foolhardy scheme. It remains a proposal that highlights Gwatkin’s disregard for African Canadians and an extreme example of an opinion that was held widely during the first 18 months of the war.
These diverse excuses, paired with the minister’s refusal to act, flew in the face of appeals and offers from both African and European Canadians. Writing from Alberta, Joseph Butler noted, “I have seven years Military experience … with a little schooling in new methods [I] would make an efficient officer.” In the fall of 1915, Alexander Bramah offered to enlist, and “go out there for no wages,” if the CEF would only have him. Contradicting Gwatkin’s assertion that African Canadians were “not impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty,” No. 2 veteran Gordon Charles told historian Calvin Ruck, “Black people refused to accept the attitude that it was a white man’s war. As loyal citizens we wanted to serve our country. It was our duty, our responsibility.”
Prominent citizens, both African and European Canadians, who promoted African Canadian participation in the military effort were also rebuffed. From Halifax, Nova Scotia, The Royal Canadian Regiment’s Captain J.S. Langford’s offer to raise an African Canadian battalion received a tardy denial as did J.F. Tupper’s similar offer made from Pictou, NS. From New Brunswick, prominent African Canadian Marine Shipping Agent, John T. Richards, wrote the Governor-General complaining African Canadian men ”of good repute” were being refused attestation in Saint John. In similar fashion, from Alberta, Joseph Butler averred that he “could recruit many eligible coloured men” to join him in enlisting. He received no response. In Toronto the founding editor of the Canadian Observer, J.R.B. Whitney, proposed to Sam Hughes that he could recruit 150 African Canadian men from southern Ontario to form a platoon. After multiple false starts, the concept was rejected.
It is hardly surprising that a leading African Canadian publication, the Atlantic Advocate, was an effusive platform for No. 2 Construction Company when one realizes that its founding editor was none other than No. 2 CC’s Acting Company Sergeant-Major Wilfred DeCosta. Other members of No. 2 CC were also contributors to the Advocate, and it became the unofficial organ of the unit. In an article entitled simply “Join the No. 2,” the Advocate argued, “if there are good things coming to you after the war, you may be assured that they will be meted out to you only in proportion to what service you have rendered when those services are needed the most.” The Advocate had a transactional interpretation of the war that matched Canadian national policy. Prime Minister Robert Borden believed the contribution of the Canadian Corps earned Canada a seat at the peace conference and the Advocate believed the contribution of African Canadians to the war effort would earn them a voice in post-war domestic arrangements. Whitney’s Canadian Observer concurred, arguing “the Great War presents African Canadians with an opportunity to prove that they are dedicated citizens capable of upholding the British Empire in its time of need.”
When this pressure from the African Canadian community began to merge with increasing demands for manpower, the idea of African Canadian enlistment was pushed to the fore. The result was the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion (No. 2 CB). The announcement was not made official until a CO could be found. Two officers declined the position before Lieutenant-Colonel D. H. Sutherland, a Nova Scotia railway contractor, accepted the role and the unit was officially established on July 5, 1916. It was initially headquartered in Pictou, later moving to larger quarters in Truro.
Recruiting was authorized on a national scale. Recruiters set up offices in Windsor and Toronto and other cities. The band was enlisted to perform at civic gatherings and in churches. Persistent inability to reach its complement led to active recruitment of African Americans. Eventually, recruits from the British West Indies and diverse other nations were also added to the rolls.
Canadians only comprised a slight majority (56.8 per cent) of No. 2 CB’s enlisted personnel. The British West Indies accounted for 10 per cent of the men, and 28.3 per cent were from the United States. The vast majority, over 60 per cent, of the Canadian-born personnel of No. 2 CB came from Nova Scotia and slightly more than one-quarter of all Canadian enlistees came from Ontario.
Throughout its existence No. 2 CB had trouble recruiting, getting up to strength and staying at strength. It was downgraded to a company so it could fill its establishment. A good part of this difficulty must be attributed to memories of the ill will earlier attempts to enlist met. Of 17 refused enlistment by the 104th Battalion in Nova Scotia, nine did not pursue opportunities with No. 2 CB. In New Brunswick, nine of 20 men rejected by the 64th Infantry Battalion declined to join No. 2 CB. In a similar vein, a group of four young men refused the opportunity to enlist in Ontario finds that only two attested to No. 2 CB. Based on these admittedly anecdotal numbers it would seem that approximately half of the men who had been willing to enlist during the first two years of the war were not interested in joining a non-combatant element of the CEF later. For a unit that constantly struggled to stay up to strength, this highlights the dysfunctional nature of the African Canadian recruiting situation before the establishment of No. 2 CB and that era’s ongoing negative impact on No. 2 CB.
Racism persisted in another picayune form also. The CO of No. 1 CB, Lieutenant-Colonel B. Ripley, was outraged that his European Canadian battalion shared a unit designation with an African Canadian unit. He argued that it insulted and denigrated his personnel and might even lead people to believe that his unit was also African Canadian. For months, through endless memoranda and missives he waged a campaign to have one of the units’ designations changed.
Reverend Captain William H. White’s amorphous rank also seems to evidence racism. White, the unit’s only African Canadian officer, was its chaplain. Officially, all of White’s documentation attests to his rank of captain. However, communications within the unit frequently preface his rank with acting or honorary. There was no justification for these prevarications and racism may have played a role.
No. 2 CB started its war work before it left Canada. For the first three months of 1917, a detachment of 250 men under Captain Kenneth A. Morrison removed rails and ties from abandoned railway lines in New Brunswick. They were then shipped to France and used in the construction of the narrow gauge railways that serviced the gun lines’ insatiable demand for shells.
The 19 officers and 605 men of No. 2 CB sailed from Pier 2 in Halifax on March 25, 1917, a Sunday, aboard SS Southland, arriving in England and proceeding to Camp Seaford in early April. There they engaged in roadwork, potato harvesting and the excavation of training trenches along with routine drill and inspections.
In England, No. 2 CB was not able to attain the numbers necessary to complete the full complement of a battalion and the British War Office refused to send understrength units to France. At this time, No. 2 CB was reorganized as a British-style labour company of nine officers and 495 other ranks. This brought it up to strength and in May 1917, re-designated No. 2 Construction Company, the unit crossed the English Channel and entrained to the Jura Mountains. (The downgrade in size also compelled Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland to accept a reduction in rank to Major.)
At Lajoux they quickly became an integral component of the district’s operations. Construction and maintenance of waterworks — requiring a lift of 460 metres through a series of pumps to service a camp of 1,300 men — was No. 2 CC’s responsibility. They also operated and maintained the boiler and generator that provided 125 volts/80 amps DC to the camp. Maintenance of roads was handled by Captain David Anderson and a party of 100 men operating a rock crusher, a steam drill, motor lorries and a steam roller. Overall responsibility for the district’s shipping and receiving was handled by Captain J.S. Grant’s detachment. Other personnel worked with European Canadian units doing everything from felling operations to operating mills and constructing small gauge railways.
The diversity and detached nature of No. 2 CC’s commitment is captured in a War Diary entry of February 1918. It inventories the occupations of the 257 men of No. 2 CC working at Lajoux. There are 30 teamsters; 50 millworkers and another 50 in bush operations; 30 shippers under Captain J.S. Grant; 15 cooks; 20 assigned to district employment; and 62 assigned to miscellaneous tasks.
The number of personnel at Lajoux is so low because the men of No. 2 CC were frequently detached to serve with other units in other regions of France. On November 12, 1917, one officer and 54 other ranks departed to Péronne in northeastern France to augment the efforts of No. 37 Company of the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). On the eve of the new year, two officers led a detachment of 180 men to No. 1 District CFC, headquartered at Alençon. Clearly, in terms of labour, No. 2 CC was integrated into the CFC, and African Canadian and European Canadian units and individuals worked together.
Perhaps most remarkable for the era is that the men at the camp messed together. They also engaged in recreation together. No. 2 CC’s baseball team had a full schedule in the summer of 1917. The unit also acquitted itself admirably at Dominion Day sporting competitions. In 1917 they emerged victorious at the end of the day’s competition and the following year they finished a respectable third. In both instances their band made a noteworthy contribution to the festivities, the War Diary noting, in July 1918, “their excellent music, greatly assisted in entertaining the crowd and making the holiday a success.”
Segregation was practically limited to sleeping quarters and hospital treatment, the African Canadians being restricted to a specific ward at the Champagnole Hospital. No. 2 CC can almost be seen as an administrative cloak. Its existence guaranteed de jure and institutional segregation. No. 2 CC was, on paper, a separate and distinct entity. However, in a de facto sense it was integrated into the wider operations of No. 5 District and, as units were detached and moved, the even broader CFC. Integration was further reinforced by the men messing together and sharing recreational pursuits.
The discipline record of No. 2 CC contains some incidents of note. Only hours after arriving in France there was an episode of looting iron rations that led to an astonishing 78 men being charged with “making away with iron rations.” Interestingly, 70 per cent of those charged were of American origin and the remainder were Canadian. The origins of this incident remain murky as the War Diary also details inadequate arrangements to feed the men during the rail trip across France.
There is also veteran testimony to a riot in Liverpool and an incident at Kinmel Park while awaiting demobilization. Both seem to have devolved from racial tensions. In the first instance a European Canadian unit refused to return No. 2 CC’s salute and at Kinmel Park Camp a European Canadian unit demanded to enter the cinema before personnel from No. 2 CC.
The most serious courts martial began on September 5, 1917 when Privates James Allen and Obediah Johnson were charged with, “When on Active Service, Committing an offence against the person of an inhabitant in the country which he is serving (rape)” and “When on Active Service, Committing an offence against the person of an inhabitant in the country which he is serving (theft).” Initially sentenced to death, their sentences were commuted to penal servitude for life. They were discharged from the CEF and imprisoned in England.
One man, Seymour Bundy, died of pneumonia while pulling tracks before the unit left Canada. Another seven men died in France from various maladies. There were no combat casualties. Another two men died in unusual circumstances.
Charlie Some was a 30-year-old labourer, married to Girty but childless. A Baptist, he was hardly a choir boy. He contracted syphilis and was hospitalized for treatment upon arrival in England and was later hospitalized two weeks after having been struck in the head with an iron bar. He had also been AWOL over Dominion Day weekend 1917 and docked pay for drunkenness. On the night of September 23/24, 1917 he was brutally murdered, savagely stabbed and slashed multiple times “by persons unknown.” The murder was never solved. A Court of Inquiry resolved nothing although it noted: “suspicion points strongly to one Barkat Toumi Mohamad #27544 of a French Detachment Quartered in Supt, who was absent at the time of the murder.” As North African troops were suspected, the investigation was handed off to the French authorities. (Investigation of French police records has never been undertaken.) A curious fate also befell Private Sydney David, whose death was attributed to misadventure; specifically, “fall over cliff — accidental.”
Following the Armistice, No. 2 Construction Company was demobilized quickly. The unit left for the UK in December and all personnel were back in Canada by May. The unit was officially disbanded by General Order 149 on September 15, 1920. It remains the only segregated unit in the history of the Canadian military.