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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris - A No. 2 Construction Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: March 20, 1899*

Place of Birth: Sand Point, Guysborough Co., NS**

Mother's Name: Ann Elizabeth 'Annie' Izzard

Father's Name: Charles Levi Parris

Date of Enlistment: July 25, 1916 at New Glasgow, NS

Regimental Number: 931017

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Labor Battalion)

Name of Unit: No. 2 Construction Battalion

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Laborer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Charles Parris, Mulgrave, NS (father)

*: Date of birth taken from 1901 census.  Attestation papers list Joe's date of birth as March 21, 1897.

**: Place of birth indicated on 1924 marriage certificate.  Attestation papers list Joe's birthplace as Mulgrave, NS.

*****
 
Joseph Alexander Parris was the second of six children born to Charles and Annie Parris of Sand Point, Guysborough County.  Like many other young men of his generation, Joe was excited at the prospect of serving overseas after the outbreak of the war in Europe.  His African Nova Scotian heritage, however, presented an obstacle as the majority of infantry battalions refused to accept 'black' recruits.
Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris (center) and unidentified No. 2 Construction Battalion comrades.  (Source: Ruck)
 When the Canadian government authorized the formation of a 'black' labour battalion on July 5, 1916, Joe quickly responded, 'exaggerating' his age by two years when he enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at New Glasgow, three weeks after the unit's formation.  His older brother, William 'Bill' Winslow Parris, joined the battalion at Truro two months later.  The following spring, the brothers embarked on a journey that took them to England and the Canadian Forestry Corps' lumber camps in France.

*****
 
No. 2 Construction Battalion's formation occurred in the aftermath of considerable debate - public and private - over African Canadians' role in the war.  A dramatic contradiction existed between official government policy and local recruitment practice.  Canada's Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, clearly instructed recruitment officers that all men who met the requirements for infantry service were to be accepted, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  In practice, however, the vast majority of Commanding Officers (OCs) refused to accept 'black' recruits into their units. 

The issue came to a head in the spring of 1916, after African Canadian community leaders across the country questioned the blatant rejection of 'black' recruits.  Unwilling to overrule its OCs, the Canadian government sought a 'compromise' - but no less discriminatory - solution, authorizing the formation of a 'black' labour unit, No. 2 Construction Battalion. Established on July 5, 1916 and headquartered at Pictou, NS, it was the only Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) unit permitted to recruit across the entire country.

Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Hugh Sutherland, a native of River John, NS who had initially enlisted with the 193rd Battalion, was appointed the unit's OC.  The remaining officers, drawn from across Canada and England - a total of eight from Nova Scotia - were all 'white', with the exception of the battalion's Chaplain, Reverend William A. White.  A native of Williamsburg, Va., Rev. White earned a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity Studies from Acadia University, Wolfville, NS and accepted a ministry with Zion Baptist Church, Truro, NS.  An outspoken supporter of 'black' enlistment, Rev. White was appointed No. 2 Construction's Honorary Chaplain with the rank of Captain, thus becoming the CEF's only 'black' commissioned officer.

While organizers hoped to enlist a full complement of 1049 men 'all ranks', initial response was disappointing.  Whether discouraged by the CEF's previous discriminatory practices or dismayed at the prospects of serving in a segregated labour unit, young African Canadian men did not rush to enlist.  By August 19, Lt.-Col. Sutherland reported a total of only 180 recruits at the battalion's Water Street barracks.

On September 9, 1916, No. 2 Construction relocated to Truro, a community with a sizeable 'black' population, in an effort to stimulate recruitment.  Lt.-Col. Sutherland laid out plans to obtain half of the unit's personnel from the Maritimes, an additional Company from Ontario and a fourth from Western Canada.  In the end, 500 of the battalion's total enlistments came from Nova Scotia, 25 of whom were born or lived in Guysborough County.  New Brunswick contributed 33 recruits, 11 of whom were part of a group of 20 'black' recruits rejected by the 64th Infantry Battalion in late 1915. 

While the move to a more 'central' location increased provincial response, results from the remainder of the country were disappointing.  A total of 72 recruits from Ontario and 6 from Quebec enlisted for service, but appeals in Western Canada - where federal immigration policy blatantly discouraged African Canadian settlement - produced only 20 recruits.  By December 1916, total numbers stood at 575 'all ranks', as a campaign launched in the United States during the winter of 1916-17 produced an additional 165 recruits.

No. 2 Construction Battalion personnel, November 1916.

No. 2 Construction Battalion officially mobilized at Truro on March 17, 1917 with a complement of 19 officers and 605 'other ranks' (OR).  Several days later, the battalion travelled to Halifax, where personnel boarded the SS Southland and departed for England on March 28.  Upon landing at Liverpool, England on April 7, the men travelled to the CEF military camp at Bramshott.  As it was significantly below full battalion strength of 1000, No. 2 Construction was officially re-designated a 'Company' shortly after its arrival and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC).

Joe and Bill remained in England for only six weeks.  They departed for France on May 17, 1917 as part of a group of 495 No. 2 Construction Company OR, accompanied by 11 Officers.  Upon crossing the English Channel, the men made their way to the Jura District of eastern France, near the Swiss border, where they were attached to No. 5 District CFC.  Its Headquarters' May 20th diary entry recorded the arrival of No. 2 Construction Company, "composed of Canadian Negroes… despatched [sic] as a labour unit... and… employed on the various railway and other construction work."

CFC's Jura operations involved all aspects of forestry production.  Teams of men worked in the forests year-round, selecting and harvesting mature timber that was transported by horse and wagon or narrow-gauge railway to CFC-operated mills.  The men produced lumber for various purposes - ties for standard and narrow gauge railways in addition to pickets, beams and boards for military camp and trench construction.  Joe and the men of No. 2 Construction worked in all aspects of the operation - assisting with mill and narrow-gauge railway construction, transporting logs to mills, milling timber, and shipping finished products.

While the majority of its personnel remained in the Jura District during No. 2 Construction's service in France, several smaller groups were dispatched to other locations.  On November 9, 1917, 1 officer and 50 OR proceeded to No. 39 CFC, Cartigny, near Peronne, France.  A second group consisting of 180 OR and two officers was assigned to Central Group CFC, No. 1 District on December 12, 1917.  Joe was part of the latter group, arriving at Alencon, southwest of Paris, on December 31, 1917.

The Alencon operation consisted of nine CFC companies logging the forests of Normandy.  Upon arrival, No. 2 Construction personnel were attached to No. 54 Company, CFC.  On March 25, 1918, the "entire district was put on production of pickets" for use at the front.  Its operations involved several diverse groups.  In addition to 'white' CFC and 'black' No. 2 Construction soldiers, several parties of 'Russian reinforcements' and 'companies' of German prisoners of war worked in its camps throughout the year.

In early April 1918, CFC Alencon personnel received orders to conduct infantry training when not working.  The following month, specific orders required each Company to devote two half-days a week and three hours each Sunday morning to "Military Training".  Considering the discriminatory practices followed by most CEF infantry battalions, it is not clear whether this directive applied to No. 2 Construction personnel. 

Before the end of the year, a small number of CFC men were selected for service at the front.  On October 4, 1918 - as the Canadian Corps spearheaded a major offensive against German positions in northern France - a draft of 6 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 150 OR left Alencon for the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp.  Given the timing of their departure, these men likely saw service at the front before the war's conclusion.

Meanwhile, Joe and his comrades spent the summer and autumn working in the CFC lumber camps near Alencon.  On May 25, the 'detachment' of No. 2 Construction Company men was reassigned to No. 42 Company CFC, with whom they remained for the duration of their time in France.  The District war diary reported record production in both timber tonnage and 'fbm' (foot board measure) of lumber in September and October 1918.

On at least one occasion, the No. 2 Construction Company personnel assigned to CFC's Alencon operations were victims of discriminatory treatment.  On June 30, 1918, the Headquarters War Diary reported that representatives of all Companies were invited to participate in a Sports Day at Alencon, in celebration of Dominion Day.  An estimated 25,000 spectators attended the July 1 festivities, with all proceeds - a total of 3000 francs - donated to the French Red Cross.  An event program outlined a variety of athletic, 'lumberjack' and recreational competitions, followed by an evening concert. 

Program Cover - CFC Alencon's Dominion Day Celebrations.
A second page in the program listed participants' names by company.  Noticeably absent from the list was No. 2 Construction Company, whose members appear to have been excluded from the day's competitions.  Such discrimination, while disappointing, was by no means uniform.  A similar gathering in CFC's Jura District included No. 2 Construction personnel:

"Dominion Day celebrated by the 11 Forestry Companies and No. 2 Construction Company in this District (No. 5).  Field sports held at Chapois….  During the day, the [No. 2 Construction] Band… by their excellent music... greatly assisted in entertaining the crowd and making the holiday a success."

In fact, a summary of the day's results reveals an impressive performance by No. 2 Construction's Jura personnel.  Private Davis, an American recruit, placed first in the 100 yard-dash and second in the running broad jump, while Private Whims, one of two brothers from Saltsprings Island, BC, placed first in the sack race "by a big margin".  Joe's brother Bill, the only Nova Scotian listed in the results, placed second in the 440-yard dash.  No. 2 Construction Company earned a total of 17 points in the day's events, placing third amongst the fourteen French, American and Canadian teams.

Throughout the late summer and early autumn, CFC personnel serving in France were granted leaves in small numbers.  In this instance, No. 2 Construction, having worked 'overseas' for fifteen months, received the same treatment.  On September 15, 1918, Joe was granted 14 days' leave to England, rejoining his unit at Alencon on September 27.  By the time of his return, his comrades had likely received word of a shocking incident that took place at Jura.

On September 23, 1918, No. 2 Construction Company's war diary recorded receipt of the following notice from Jura HQ:

"# 931410 Pte. Some, C. found dead (presumably murdered) on Road 45, a narrow road which leads from the main Andelot Road to Salins.  French authorities posted Gendarmes… and proceeded to investigate the case."

A native of Natal, South Africa, Charlie Some enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Halifax on January 13, 1917.  While he accompanied the battalion to England, Charlie was not initially selected for service with CFC.  Instead, six months after arriving in England, Pte. Some was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, where he was the victim of a violent assault.  On November 30, 1917, Charlie was hospitalized with a 'lacerated wd. [wound to his] scalp" received when "he was hit in the head by a man with a piece of iron".

Charlie was discharged from hospital two weeks later and spent the winter of 1917-18 at Bramshott.  On May 19, 1918, he returned to the ranks of No 2 Construction Company and was subsequently selected for service with the CFC in France.  After his arrival in Jura on June 6, 1918, his service record contains no reference to further incidents until the day of his untimely death.

Authorities immediately convened a Military Board of Officers to investigate the incident.  Two days later, Charlie's remains were taken to La Joux, where Captain Emmett Scarlett, CAMC, conducted a post-mortem examination.  On September 26, Pte. Charles Some was "interned with full military honours in the Cemetery of Supt, France in the Department of Jura."

One week later, the Court of Inquiry reported that Pte. Some was "murdered by some person or persons unknown with a long sharp cutting instrument."  The report included a statement attributed to Major Sutherland, No. 2 Construction Company's OC:

"According to finding of Court of Inquiry, suspicion points strongly to one Barkat Toumi Mohamad # 27544 of a French Det. quartered in Supt, who was absent at the time of murder." 

Pte. Some's file contains no information as to whether the French soldier or any other individual was ever charged or convicted in connection with his death.

No. 2 Construction Battalion badge.
The men of No. 2 Construction Company continued to work in the forests and lumber camps of Jura and Alencon throughout the autumn of 1918.  Upon receiving news of the November 11, 1918 Armistice, No. 1 District CFC HQ's war diary reported that "a general holiday was to be observed throughout the District on November 12 for the purpose of celebrating the temporary cessation of hostilities".

As fighting came to an end, production at the CFC's various lumber camps ceased and personnel gradually returned to England.  No. 2 Construction Company was amongst the first to depart.  On December 4, 1918, the Alencon CFC HQ war diary stated: "1 Officer and 135 OR No. 2 Canadian Construction Company (coloured) left for Etaples on Demobilization Draft".

Joe Parris was amongst the men leaving Alencon on that day.  Upon his return to England on December 14 in the company of all No. 2 Construction members, Joe was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, where he awaited orders to return to Canada.  Their days in England were not without incident, as sometime after their arrival, another controversial event occurred. 

According to Private Benjamin Elms of Monastery, Antigonish County, a riot broke out between No. 2 Construction personnel and a group of CEF infantrymen at Kemmel Park, Wales, when "a white soldier made a racial remark".  After No. 2 Construction Sgt. Edward Sealy, a native of Barbados, ordered the man arrested, "his buddies came to release him and all hell broke loose".

Pte. Robert Shepard of Mulgrave, another No. 2 Construction veteran, described the incident in these words:

"No. 2 was on parade under the direction of Sergeant Sealy.  A sergeant-major from another unit ignored orders from Sergeant Sealy and interfered with the line of march.  When he was arrested, some of his comrades attempted to remove him from the guard house.  A riot broke out and a number of soldiers ended up in hospital."

Other reports suggest that the 'white' unit stepped in front of No. 2 Construction soldiers waiting their turn in the 'bath' line.  No official CEF documents refer to the incident, nor does Sergeant Sealy's personnel file contain any reference to his involvement.  

Pte. Joe Parris' Service Medals (Mulgrave Community Museum).
On January 12, 1919, Joe and the members of No 2 Construction Company boarded the SS 'Empress of Britain' for the return journey to Canada, arriving in Halifax ten days later.  Exactly one month after departing England - February 12, 1919 - Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  In recognition of his service in France, Joe received the British War Medal and Victory Medal, both of which are on display today in the Mulgrave Community Museum.

*****

After his discharge, Joe returned to Mulgrave, where he found employment as a labourer.  On December 1, 1924, he married Annie Jane Jarvis, a native of Tracadie.  Sadly, their married life together was short-lived, as Annie passed away in 1936 from complications due to congestive heart failure.  Joe subsequently married Viola Jane Borden and raised a large family in Mulgrave.

In 1929, Joe became a member of the Mulgrave Branch, Royal Canadian Legion, giving his age at enlistment as 17.  He spent the remainder of his life working in the small Guysborough community close to his birthplace, passing away on April 19, 1972.  Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris was laid to rest in St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery, Mulgrave, NS, alongside his first wife and two children who died in infancy.

*****
 
Sources:

List of Court-Martialed No. 2 Construction Battalion Servicemen Released.  Boxscore News.  Available online.

Regimental Record of Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris, number 931017.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: Rg 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7574 - 69.  Attestation papers available online.

Regimental Record of Sgt. Edward Sealy, number 931011.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8751 - 48.  Service record available online.

Regimental Record of Pte. Charles Some, number 931410.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9149 - 40.  Service record available online.

Ruck, Calvin W..  The Black Battalion 1916 - 1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret.  Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 1987.  Available online.

War Diary of Canadian Construction Company (Coloured), 1917/05/17 - 1918/10/31.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5015, Reel T-10866-10867, File: 747.  Available online.

War Diary of Canadian Forestry Corps - Headquarters - Central Group, 1916/11/30 - 1919/02/28.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5016, Reel T-10867-10868, File: 751.  Available online.

War Diary of Canadian Forestry Corps - Headquarters - Jura Group, 1917/11/26 - 1919/03/29.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5016, Reel T-10868, File: 751.  Available online.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

African Canadians and the Canadian Expeditionary Force

With the outbreak of the First World War, Canadians from many backgrounds were eager to serve with the newly created Canadian Expeditionary Force.  Unfortunately, some ethnic groups received a much less enthusiastic response than others.  Canadians of Native, Japanese and African ancestry in particular encountered indifference, resistance and outright rejection when they attempted to enlist for overseas service.

The rejection of African Canadians is particularly disturbing in light of their lengthy tradition of loyal service with British and Canadian military forces.  During the American Revolutionary War, Britain encouraged African American slaves to flee their 'masters' and enlist in the British Army.  A considerable number did so, while many others supported the British cause as labourers.

One particular Corps, the Black Pioneers, served throughout the Revolutionary War.  Some of its members followed the United Empire Loyalists to new homes in the Maritime colonies and Upper Canada after 1783.  Virtually every Loyalist unit contained African Americans, some of whom relocated to such Maritime locations as Birchtown, Preston, Digby and Saint John at war's end.

African Canadians also participated in military events that are part of Canada's colonial history.  During the War of 1812, for example, Blacks served in local militias.  The 'Company of Colored Men', a volunteer unit organized in the Niagara region and commanded by a 'white' officer, helped defend Upper Canada from invading American forces.  Black soldiers also served alongside Canadians of Scottish, English and French ancestry.  Some were former American slaves who had escaped to British North America via the 'Underground Railroad'.

Several Upper Canadian towns organized Black militia units after the outbreak of the Upper Canadian Rebellion in December 1837.  Five companies, once again led by 'white' officers, supported the colonial government's efforts to crush the local uprising led by William Lyon Mackenzie.

Canada Post stamp in honour of William Hall, VC.
 African Canadians also served in military conflicts abroad, on occasion with great distinction.  The first individual from a British colony to receive the Victoria Cross was William Edward Hall, son of a freed American slave and a native of Horton Bluffs, Nova Scotia.  Hall enlisted with the British Navy as a teenager and saw action in the Crimean War (1853-56).  He earned the Empire's most prestigious bravery award for his actions in rescuing British soldiers and civilians being held hostage at Lucknow during the 'Indian Mutiny' of 1857.

During the American Civil War, a considerable number of Black British North Americans crossed the border to serve with the Union Army during its four-year struggle against the Confederate States of America.  At the turn of the last century, a small number of African Canadians enlisted with the Canadian Contingent in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). 

Considering this record of service, it is not surprising that African Canadians were eager to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) after the outbreak of the First World War.  The response they received from recruiting officers, however, was disappointing to say the least.  While a handful of African Canadians succeeded in joining the First Canadian Contingent battalions that departed for England in September 1914, the vast majority was rejected due to their racial background.

To their credit, African Canadian communities and leaders across the country refused to accept such treatment.  During the war's early months, several individuals challenged the CEF's recruitment practices.  On November 6, 1914, Arthur Alexander, a prominent African Canadian living in Buxton, Ontario, wrote directly to Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, asking why Blacks were not permitted to enlist for overseas service.  Government officials responded that the selection of soldiers was entirely up to each battalion's Commanding Officer (CO) and military Headquarters did not wish to interfere with such decisions.

Objections to this practice increased as the war entered its second year.  On September 7, 1915, George Morton, a resident of Hamilton, Ontario, questioned the rejection of a number of 'coloured men' who attempted to enlist with a local battalion.  In his reply, Acting Adjutant-General, Brigadier-General W. E. Hodgins, stated that nothing in 'existing regulations' prohibited African Canadians from service with CEF units.  However, he pointed out that 'final approval' for such requests rested with each unit's CO, effectively ensuring that the majority of Black volunteers would continue to meet with rejection.

New Brunswick members of No. 2 Construction Battalion Band (Ruck, p. 21).
A November 1915 incident provoked considerable discussion of CEF recruitment policy and practices with regard to African Canadians.  Twenty-five Black volunteers who had persistently attempted to enlist throughout the year were turned away when they reported for service with the 104th Battalion at Sussex, New Brunswick.  In the aftermath of this incident, the unit's CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Beverley Robinson Armstrong, wrote to military authorities, asking if consideration was being given to the formation of a "Black' battalion anywhere in Canada.

Simultaneously, Minister of Militia Hughes responded to correspondence received from John T. Richards of Saint John, New Brunswick in relation to the Sussex incident.  The letter's content is both curious and contradictory.  Hughes stated that he had issued instructions that any African Canadian who met the CEF's physical requirements should be permitted to enlist in any battalion, a policy that was clearly not being followed.

Subsequent to Hughes' correspondence, Adjutant-General Hodgins wrote to the General Officer, 6th Division, Halifax, on November 29, 1915, stating that the Minister had issued instructions that "the coloured men are to be permitted to enlist in any battalion".  Despite these explicit statements from both civilian and military authorities, CO's and recruitment officers continued to reject Black volunteers.

A similar incident in Ontario eventually brought matters to a head, forcing government officials to resolve the blatant contradiction between national policy and local practice.  In November 1915, J. R. B. Whitney, publisher of the Canadian Observer, a prominent African Canadian newspaper, offered to recruit a 'Black' Ontario platoon of 150 men for service with a CEF battalion.  When Minister Hughes replied that there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, Whitney raised the required number of volunteers, only to be told in March 1916 that no CO was willing to accept such a unit.

The following month, Whitney once again contacted Minister Hughes, seeking an explanation for this rejection and requesting his platoon's accommodation within an existing battalion.  The military's failure to meet his request represented tacit acknowledgement that discriminatory practices at the local level, not official policy in Ottawa, determined the fate of African Canadians wishing to serve with the CEF.

African Canadian soldiers loading ammunition on a tramway (Canadian War Museum).
The availability and suitability of African Canadians for military service was readily apparent to some individuals within the military.  Reverend Joseph Freeman Tupper, an Honorary Captain and Chaplain who enlisted with the 193rd Battalion on April 1, 1916, wrote to Minister of Militia Hughes, volunteering to raise an 'integrated' battalion after local recruiters turned away more than 100 African Canadians.  His offer received no serious consideration or response.

By mid-1916, events occurring in the larger context of war eventually produced a 'resolution' to the issue of African Canadian military service.  Rising casualty figures overseas, combined with declining enlistment numbers at home, created a significant problem for the CEF - for the first time since the war's outbreak, it faced the prospect of declined numbers of men in uniform. 

At the same time, there was increasing support amongst military commanders in Ottawa for the formation of a separate 'Black' unit of some kind.  Unwilling to over-rule local CO's who consistently refused to accept Black recruits, such action was perceived as the only acceptable solution, albeit not an ideal one. 

In April 1916, after eighteen months of discussion, contradiction and lack of action, Major-General Sir Willoughby Garnons Gwatkin, Chief of the Canadian Militia's General Staff, recommended that the 'practice' of allowing individual Blacks to enlist in 'white' battalions at the discretion of individual CO's should continue.  He further suggested that African Canadians form one or more 'labour' battalions for overseas service. 

Gwatkin's memo became the basis for the CEF's recruitment policy with regard to African Canadians for the remainder of the war and prompted the formation of a separate 'Black' battalion.  On May 11, 1916, British authorities indicated their willingness to accept an African Canadian 'labour' unit.  Canadian military authorities quickly announced the formation of No 2 Construction Battalion at Pictou, Nova Scotia on July 5, 1916.  The unit provided the first 'official' opportunity for African Canadians to serve overseas.

African Canadian soldiers washing laundry (Canadian War Museum).
Over 600 men from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Western Canada and parts of the United States served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion for the duration of the war.  While its formation was a victory of sorts, there were significant elements of inequity in its formation, as all of its officers but one - Honorary Chaplain, Rev. William A. White of Truro, NS - were Caucasian, and infantry units by and large remained closed to African Canadian recruits.

There were exceptions to this practice.  While small in scale, one such case was the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles), a unit organized in Truro, Nova Scotia, with companies recruited in nearby Pictou and Springhill.  As all three communities possessed sizeable numbers of African Canadians, its recruiters soon faced the 'dilemma' posed by 'Black volunteers'.

The unit's initial CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. Allen, was forced to confront the issue when Samuel Reese, a native of British Guiana living in Nova Scotia at the time, attempted to enlist with the 106th after being rejected by both the Composite Battalion (Halifax Citadel) and Royal Canadian Regiment in Halifax.  Reverend William A. White, Pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, Truro, wrote to Allen in support of Reese's enlistment.

Allen indicated his willingness to accept African Nova Scotian recruits if there were sufficient numbers to form a 'Black' platoon.  Shortly after Reese's application, Allen received Minister Hughes' instructions that "there is to be no distinction of colour for enlistment".  While convinced that Blacks ought to serve in some capacity and would make 'good' soldiers, Allen was not certain that they could do so alongside 'white' soldiers.

The 106th eventually accepted a total of 16 'Black' volunteers into its ranks between December 1915 and July 1916, although the majority enlisted after the appointment of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Innis as the unit's new CO in May 1916.  Rather than establishing a separate 'Black' platoon, the recruits were 'integrated' into the battalion's four companies.

British soldier Walter Tull became the first 'black' officer to command troops during the First World War.  Click here to read his story.
 While the 106th was disbanded shortly after reaching England, its African Nova Scotian members served in combat with various Canadian battalions in France and Belgium.  One 106th African Nova Scotian recruit, Rollie Ash of Guysborough, NS, was killed in action in France on January 16, 1917 while serving with the 26th Battalion, a New Brunswick unit.  His younger brother, Norman, a native of Antigonish, NS, fought with the same unit and was killed in action at Hill 70 on August 15, 1917.

The passage of the Military Service Act on August 29, 1917 once again created the dilemma of 'African Canadian' military service.  While official policy permitted their conscription into service, military authorities unofficially maintained the practice of racial segregation.  Upon arriving in England, many Black conscripts were placed in segregated units and assigned to 'fatigue' and labor duties, instead of military drill.  Later in 1918, the units were eventually designated as reinforcements for Nova Scotia's 85th Battalion, but the war ended before the conscripts were called to the front.

An estimated 2000 African Canadians managed to enlist with regular infantry units during the war, in addition to the 600 men who served with No. 2 Construction Battalion.  Their military service in the face of racism and systemic discrimination is testimony to their dedication and determination to serve their country in time of crisis.  It also represents a significant contribution to the tradition of African Canadian military service, one that continued throughout the military conflicts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

*****

Sources:

African Canadian Community - World War I.  Windsor Mosaic.  Available online.

Black Canadians in Uniform - A Proud Tradition.  Veterans Affairs Canada.  Available online.

Mobilization Means War!  Canada Enters the Great War.  Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective.  Available online.

No. 2 Construction Battalion.   Historica Canada - Black History Canada.  Available online.

Ruck Calvin.  The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret.  Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing, 1987.  Available online.