Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion

Good Remembrance Day article and history lesson:

The year was 1914 and while the war was escalating in Europe, a different struggle took root in Canada.

Young black men determined to serve their country – men who had left jobs and uprooted families in pursuit of a military unit that might accept them – were being rejected by recruiters from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. One commanding officer in New Brunswick turned away 20 healthy black recruits at once because he believed his white soldiers should not “have to mingle with Negroes,” according to a letter he wrote to his superiors in Halifax.

This war, black Canadians were told, had no use for people of their colour.

That unofficial policy kept most black Canadians from enlisting for the better part of two years, although some did manage to convince sympathetic commanding officers to allow them into mostly white units. Black leaders and their white supporters were unwilling to accept being shut out en masse, though. After two years of lobbying – fighting to fight – a compromise was cautiously forged. Black Canadians were told they could enlist if they could muster enough men to form their own, segregated battalion, which would be based out of the way in tiny Pictou, a community on Nova Scotia’s North Shore that had no black residents.

Still, the plan was to recruit more than 1,000 men from across the country from Canada and, ultimately, the United States and the British West Indies.

But there was a catch: The battalion’s soldiers would not be given guns. Instead, they would be outfitted with shovels and forestry tools. Instead of fighting alongside Allied forces on the front lines, the Black Battalion – officially the No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, and the only segregated battalion formed – would ship out as a non-combat force trained to dig trenches, carry the dead, build prisons and fell trees in France’s Joux forest.

“In France, in the firing line, there is no place for a black battalion,” wrote Major-General W.G. Gwatkin, Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa, who derided black recruits in the same announcement he made to enable their service. Having black soldiers on the front line “would be eyed askance,” he wrote. “It would crowd out a white battalion; and it would be difficult to reinforce.”

Their second-class status was one of many difficult challenges faced by the Black Battalion, whose soldiers suffered some of the most oppressive conditions during the war but received little recognition for their sacrifice and service. They were not honoured as heroes when they returned to Halifax in 1919 nor when the battalion was officially disbanded in 1920. Their story went largely unacknowledged until 1986, when Senator Calvin Ruck published his book, The Black Battalion: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret. The thin volume was the culmination of years of painstaking research. Even Mr. Ruck, who was born in Sydney, N.S., had never heard tell of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.

Formed in July, 1916, the unit recruited just more than 600 men, including about 300 from Nova Scotia, 350 from Ontario and a collection of Western Canadian, American and international recruits. Their first assignment was to dig up rail lines across New Brunswick. They eventually left from Halifax in March, 1917, on the troopship Southland. They landed in England and dug trenches for troops training there and repaired roads; within months, they were attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps and sent to France for logging and milling work, to carry out road repairs and to haul supplies.

“They were viewed as being mentally and physically inferior. They joined in obscurity. They trained in obscurity. They fought and served in obscurity,” said Douglas Ruck, a Halifax-based lawyer and Senator Ruck’s son. He recalls the family dining table being blanketed for years with the archival records his father had collected to piece together the Black Battalion’s story.

It is as much about their absence from most Canadian history books as it is about their role in the war. Although her father, Joseph Parris, served in the No. 2, Sylvia Parris grew up with no knowledge of the battalion. She learned much of the story after Mr. Ruck published his book and says it has helped her understand why her father and the rest of the battalion rarely told their stories, which were neither heroic nor prideful.

“They went to the war in the face of systemic and individual racism. They went because their country, however they came to it, was their country, too. They had families to protect,” she said, adding: “They came back to those same systemic issues. And they kept to themselves as a means of survival.”

Russell Grosse, executive director of the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, said few stayed in touch after the war despite the fact many lived near each other. In 1982, when Mr. Ruck and the BBC held a ceremony in Halifax to honour nine remaining veterans of the battalion, the men were practically strangers. But the recognition they received that night, Mr. Grosse said, showed the veterans and their families that they deserved a legacy.

“They were so abused and misused along the way. Every day was a struggle for them just to be a part of the organization,” said George Borden, a historian who grew up with several Black Battalion veterans in his Nova Scotia community. “They were the last to get supplied. They were the last to get paid. These were young men, but they were men,” he said. “It completely destroyed their self-pride.”

Official recognition of their service came in 1993, when Pictou’s Market Wharf, the site of the battalion’s first headquarters, was declared a national historic site.

Now, the job for the dwindling number of people who know the battalion’s story is to get it into history books and ensure their legacy does not disappear.

“I just want to respect them as having wanted to do the same job as everyone else wanted to do,” Mr. Borden said. “If anyone can be remembered, they should be remembered likewise.”

Source: Black on the battlefield: Canada’s forgotten First World War battalion

Gray: WWI an odd place to start our national mythology

Nice contrarian piece by Charlotte Gray on World War 1 and the government narrative:

As early as October 1914, Maclean’s magazine called the bloody conflict in Europe “the Great War.” But it wasn’t a great war, let alone “the war to end all wars” as British writer H. G. Wells suggested. It was a failed war. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles was supposed to ensure that the major European powers would never go to war again. In fact the Versailles Treaty turned out to be “the peace to end all peace.” Within twenty years of the treaty being signed, brutal conflict had erupted again in Europe.

The boundaries that the victorious powers slapped onto their maps of the Middle East reflected their own self-interest rather than the religious and ethnic realities on the ground. The current turmoil in the Arab world can be traced back, in part, to decisions taken in the Hall of Mirrors and subsequent diplomatic get-togethers.

The second reason for my increasing unease is a disturbing thread in some of the First World War commemorations: Military battles are being presented to Canadians as significant moments in our “coming of age” as a country. Yet you only have to read about the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge see historian Tim Cook’s wonderful Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1917-1918 to know that this “coming of age” was the result of poor military planning by British generals, and involved hundreds of needless deaths. Amongst those Canadians that returned, there was an undercurrent of resentment that they had been embroiled in a British imperial crusade. This is a funny place to start the national mythology. How much is our past being manipulated for nationalist reasons? Many of the citizens in today’s multicultural Canada have their roots in countries that were either defeated in 1918, or played no part in the conflict. What should the killing fields of Europe mean to them?

So let’s recall the nobility of individual young men who answered the summons “Your Country Needs You” and marched to their death. But it should not obscure the most depressing side of the story – the pointlessness of the massacre.

Gray: WWI an odd place to start our national mythology | Ottawa Citizen.

WWI racism: black, Asian and aboriginal volunteers faced discrimination

Another angle to the coverage of WWI and Canada’s role, and a reminder how Canada has changed:

Many of those remembered by the monument [honouring Japanese-Canadian soldiers] were denied the right to enlist in British Columbia at the start of the war and had to travel to Alberta, where they joined up with regiments like the Calgary Highlanders.

Dozens died while fighting in Europe, and shortly after the war ended, the limestone cenotaph was erected, etched with the names of the men who fought.

Professor Tim Cook, a historian at the Canadian War Museum and an adjunct research professor at Carleton University, said Canadians of African and Asian ancestry, as well as First Nations, all faced discrimination.

“Canada was not the multicultural country that it is today,” he said. “It was very much a prejudiced society.”

After Britain declared war on Aug. 4, 1914, most of the first recruits were Anglo-Saxon and English speaking, and those who weren’t were simply turned away, said Cook.

First Nations were treated a bit differently, he added, because they had a reputation for being snipers and scouts. Still, the government didn’t know what to do with aboriginal volunteers because it feared the Germans wouldn’t extend any mercy on the battlefield to those they captured. By the end of the war, about 4,000 First Nations served, said Cook.

About 60 per cent of Canada’s first contingent of soldiers were British-born, 30 per cent were Canadian and about 10 per cent were others, Cook said, adding that most of the recruits were former British soldiers who served in the Boer War or were members of the Canadian militia or professional army.

WWI racism: black, Asian and aboriginal volunteers faced discrimination | Toronto Star.

From the Vancouver Sun, a good profile of the Louie brothers, Chinese Canadians, who fought in WW1:

In 1917, when there were conscription riots in Canada by those not willing to fight, the brothers’ dogged insistence on joining the Canadian Army and fighting for a country that refused them full citizenship and whose racial policies deemed them inferior was nothing short of astonishing.

The brothers were among the 300 or so Chinese-Canadians believed to have volunteered to fight in the First World War but about whom very little is known.

The pair’s exploits, therefore, must stand in for all those unknown warriors who, like the Louies, didn’t seek safety behind what they might have considered a convenient aspect of racism — their exemption from conscription.

Col. Howe Lee, one of the founders of the Chinese Canadian Military Museum at 555 Columbia St., in Vancouver’s Chinatown, says the Canadian government exempted Chinese Canadians from conscription in the First World War as a means to continue denying them citizenship.

“It’s generally accepted if a foreigner fights for a country during a war, they are entitled to citizenship. The Louie brothers weren’t foreigners, they were born here, but that didn’t matter. When conscription came in, they were exempt because the government didn’t want to give citizenship to Chinese,” said Lee.

Photographs of both soldiers and some of the letters they wrote home from the Western Front on army-issue paper are now on display in a small room at the museum, as is Wee Tan’s steel helmet that he brought home from France.

Battling enemies overseas, fighting racism on home front