A ‘White Man’s War’ No More: Black Volunteers in the CEF

At the outbreak of the Great War, Canadians from Nova Scotia to British Columbia flooded to the recruiting offices as a patriotic fervour swept across the nation. A large number of Black volunteers, however, were turned away from what they were told was a “white man’s war.” [1] As we enter February and make an effort to recognize and remember the too-often neglected history of Black Canadians, I thought we would take this opportunity to shed light on what was described as “one of the best kept secrets in Canadian military history.” [2] According to Calvin W. Ruck, it is one of Canada’s best kept secrets because many Canadians are unaware that roughly 600 Black soldiers served in Canada’s first and only all-Black Battalion during the First World War. 

Image: “Group Shot Battalion” Collections CCGW/CCGG, 2017.01.02.

As Black volunteers were being refused solely on the grounds of their colour, it was evident that there was a prevailing atmosphere within the Canadian Expeditionary Force and across Canada that Blacks were not welcome within the CEF. While there were no official exclusionary policies or regulations that prohibited Blacks from enlisting, “the final approval of any man, regardless of colour or other distinction, must of course rest with the officer commanding the particular unit which the man in question is desirous of joining.” [3] In fewer words, it was completely to the discretion of the commanding officer, many of which were reluctant to accept Black volunteers for fear of losing their White volunteers. Moreover, since there was no shortage of men willing to fight overseas, commanding officers could afford to be more selective. Nevertheless, Black volunteers were determined to participate in the defence of their country and continued to protest the overt racism and discrimination.

As the forces continued to deplete and the debate regarding conscription intensified, the CEF began to seriously consider a Black Battalion. Amidst the mounting protests, the first and only all-Black Battalion in Canadian military history was authorized on July 5, 1916, with headquarters at Pictou, N.S. [4] The No. 2 Construction Battalion was a segregated non-combattant Battalion and received special authority to recruit across all provinces since it was assumed that it would not be competing with other units. While the Battalion had difficulty reaching its proposed 1,000 recruits, the No. 2 Construction Battalion sailed for England on March 28, 1917 with a strength 19 officers and 605 men of other ranks. Once arriving in France, the Battalion was attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps where it was tasked with support roles such as building roads, railway tracks and bridges, defusing land mines, retrieving the wounded from the battlefield, and digging and repairing trenches.

Apart from the No. 2 Construction Battalion, there were many other Black volunteers who served with Battalions whose commanding officers were more tolerant. Approximately 16 volunteers were accepted into the 106th Battalion and dispersed throughout its four companies. Other Battalions, including the 25th Battalion, the 102nd Battalion, the 1st Quebec Regiment and the 116th Battalion accepted Black volunteers. In these more infrequent cases, Blacks and Whites fought alongside. For instance, in the photograph above of an unknown Battalion, a Black soldier can be seen sitting in the second row, eighth from the left.

In refusing to accept that it was a ‘white man’s war,’ Black volunteers paved a significant path towards equality. While the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion resulted from racism and a desperate need for fresh recruits, it was successful in setting precedent for a greater integration of Black Canadians into the CEF.

References

[1] Calvin W. Ruck. The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret. Nimbus Publishing Limited: Halifax, 1987. 6.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] History – Black Canadians in Uniform, A Proud Tradition. Retrieved from http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/those-who-served/black-canadians-in-uniform/history

[5] No. 2 Construction Battalion. Retrieved from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/no-2-construction-battalion/

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