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When prejudice and racism overrode recruitment

With media headlines screaming about shortfalls in skilled combat arms personnel, shades of the lack of infantry that plagued Canadian Expeditionary Forces in two world wars seem to be with us again.

The short history of the CEF’s Number 2 Construction Battalion in the First Great War perhaps serves to alert us to the role attitudes and prejudices play in the recruiting process.

The creation of Canada’s only segregated unit, Number 2 Construction Battalion, resulted from the inability of blacks to respond to their patriotic impulses and join other Canadians in Sam Hughes’ Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). One of the exceptions was Private Jeremiah Jones, who managed to join the 106th CEF Battalion. While a member of the RCR he single-handedly captured a German machine gun with crew.

The growing shortage of manpower was evident by 1916 but few blacks had managed to enlist in Canadian infantry battalions in the face of prejudice. However, the black community had sufficient political influence in Nova Scotia, where about a third of Canada’s estimated 20,000 blacks lived, to make the denial of their right to serve a political issue. Number 2 Construction Battalion, a unit of black soldiers led by white officers, was the compromise agreed to by a manpower-strapped army. This new unit formed in July 1916, and was based first in Pictou and then in Truro, Private Jones’ hometown.

A “construction” battalion role was decided upon as it was felt the small black community would not support the attrition of a frontline infantry battalion. The term “construction” was used instead of the proposed “labour,” though, ironically, the battalion served in France as an over-strength independent company, and not on frontline construction tasks but as a labour pool for the Canadian Forestry Corps in the latter’s Jura Group in a French military zone.

The failure to recruit enough blacks was and still is attributed to several factors. Many in the black community were opposed to a segregated unit. Others wanted to “fight,” not to “labour.” The simple label of “construction” deterred some potential combatants. Understandably, some potential recruits had lost their enthusiasm for volunteering in the face of earlier rejections.

The commanding officer, LCol Sutherland, an unsung hero, took a reduction in rank so that he could deploy to France with his 500 soldiers to La Joux on 20 May 1917. As the largest sub-unit along side the 11 forestry companies in Number 5 District, soldiers from 2 Construction Company (reinforced) were dispersed wherever the range of skill sets of individual soldiers could be utilized by forestry sub-units. A Canadian historian, John Griffith Armstrong, has suggested that the Canadian Forestry Corps might have absorbed these Canadian black troops into their different units.

Some in Canada now perceived the possibility of assimilation as prejudicial to the interests of the black community. Politicians were enlisted to support segregation when previously they had been requested to back integration.

Canadian First Nations, many of whom lived in separate, if not segregated, communities on reservations in 1914, were assimilated from the beginning of the war, although at least one regiment in the non-permanent active militia, the 37th Haldimand Rifles, was based on the Iroquois Six Nations Reserve south of Brantford and thus could have served as the basis of a First Nations’ segregated battalion.

Over 4,000 First Nations males served in CEF units. Alexander and Charles Smith, sons of Cayuga Chief Alexander George Smith, both won the Military Cross as infantry officers. Cpl Francis Pegahmagbow was awarded the Military Cross plus two bars, one of only 39 members of the CEF to receive two bars.

Unfortunately, few blacks received the opportunity to earn such recognition in the CEF. It is not that blacks lacked the courage to merit gallantry awards. The first British North American to receive the Victoria Cross was William Hall, a Nova Scotian serving in the RN.

Would blacks have provided their share of heroic examples if given the opportunity in World War I? The experience of other British units and, indeed, other countries suggests a resounding “yes.”

The French, in contrast to the British, provided many more opportunities for blacks to display their courage in combat with Germans. An estimated 135,000 black Africans served with the French army on the Western Front. The casualties of this force alone exceed the total of 55,000 black Africans raised for British service. (This total does not include France’s North African troops from Morocco or Algeria or those left in Africa to assist in campaigns in the German colonies or in garrisons.)

Fijians, now noted for their martial prowess as demonstrated in Britain’s SAS and by their hiring as mercenaries, in World War I were relegated to transport duties such as handling cargo in the Western theatre of operations. Ratu Sukuna, while at Wadham College, Oxford, was not allowed to join the British Army in a combat role. He enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and during two years of action in France was awarded the Military Medal and the Croix de Guerre. When re-joining the Fijian Transport sub-unit, he could only serve as a sergeant.

The post-war recognition was limited as well. West Indians complain that their First War contribution has not been recognized by Britain. In Canada, John Griffith Armstrong notes that there is no mention of 2 Construction Battalion (or reinforced company as deployed) or, indeed, “black” soldiers in the history of the Canadian Forestry Corps.

Readers can judge for themselves whether the creation of Number 2 Construction Battalion best served the war interests of Canada. The story of this unit does suggest that care must be taken not to let prejudices or attitudes about race or gender, or even age, interfere with recruiting people who are capable of fighting, often on a heroic scale, if given the opportunity.

Roy Thomas, MSC, CD, MA (RMC) received a Meritorious Service Cross for his actions in Sarajevo; ironically, he was advised by a colleague that a senior officer was interfering with his deployment to Yugoslavia as a unarmed military observer on the grounds that he was too old. He believes physical fitness as well as knowledge and skill sets should be the criteria for overseas service, not age. Michael Thomas, CD, provided research assistance for this article.

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