As the First World War raged in April and July 1916, the Canadian army recruited new construction battalions. The Canadian military grew throughout the war and at the time, the new battalions seemed like routine announcements. Innocuously, identified as No. 2 Construction Battalion, the July addition to Canada’s order of battle was actually a radical departure. The rank and file were black recruits.
Prior to the creation of No. 2 CB it had been hard for blacks to enlist. Minister of Militia Sam Hughes had cleverly avoided a determination. Usually hard charging and aggressive, he insisted that the decision was not his to make and dropped the problem into the hands of regimental officers. Almost to a man they declined to enlist blacks. Their excuses ranged from the sublime (enlisting blacks would deny a white an opportunity for glory) to the ridiculous (if blacks joined white enlistment would dry up).
In 1914 when war broke out, Canadian men had rushed to sign up, afraid they might miss the adventure. In 1915 Canadians had enlisted at a rate of 30,000 per month. The target for 1916 was half a million, but numbers plunged to as low as 6,000 per month.
Industrial warfare was consuming lives at a furious rate in a struggle that seemed to be permanently stalemated. That manpower crisis led to the formation of No. 2 CB, the first black unit in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Or as Robert Sheppard, a soldier with the No. 2 CB told historian Calvin Ruck, “when things got so hot over in France, they decided to accept blacks.”
The unit was formed in Pictou and latter transfer to Truro, but was authorized to recruit across Canada. Personnel consisted of a majority of Nova Scotians. The unit also included 165 black Americans and volunteers from the British West Indies.
The commanding officer was Lieutenant-Colonel D.H. Sutherland of River John, Nova Scotia. Interestingly, the battalion medical officer was Capt. Dan Murray from Springhill (grandfather of famous singer Anne Murray). The unit padre, Capt. Rev. William A. White, was one of the few black officers in the Canadian Army in the First World War.
The Battalion, with 19 officers and 605 men, sailed for England, from Halifax, on March 25, 1917, arriving in Liverpool on April 8. The unit was stationed at Seaford and for the next five weeks was employed in constructing trenches for troops in training and building and repairing roads. Before proceeding to France, the unit was reorganized as a reinforced Construction Company of 10 officers and 506 men. Sutherland took a reduction in rank to major in order to retain command.
The company landed in France on May 17 and deployed at La Joux in the Jura Mountains on May 21. No. 2 CB was attached to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps and was employed in logging, milling and shipping operations. It also built and repaired roads, constructed a small gauge railway to move logs to the sawmill and maintained the camp’s water supply system. Small elements of the company were detached to Normandy and the Le Mans regions.
The two major events associated with the 100th Anniversary of the formation of No. 2 CB are a reception in the Halifax Citadel on July 5, 2016 hosted by the Army Museum Halifax Citadel and the Annual Parade in Pictou on July 9, 2016 hosted by the Black Cultural Centre.
The July 5 reception is on the actual anniversary of the formation of the No.2 CB and will feature the unveiling of a commissioned painting showing members of the battalion at work in France, a Parks Canada “Hometown Heroes” series of panels featuring members of the unit will also be featured. On the following weekend festivities will move to Pictou for the presentation of a unit centenary quilt.