Foundations of Construction: Crucial support provided by No. 2 Construction Battalion

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“Members of No. 2 Canadian Construction Battalion, attached to Canadian Forestry Corps, at a timber yard in France, circa 1918.” Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada / PA-022984. Retrieved from https://recherche-collection-search.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/home/record?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=3523256

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

The call to volunteer for duty in World War One touched the hearts of people across the country. Canada needed them, and men, mainly between 18 and 45, signed up. But discrimination held up its ugly hand and most Black men were halted at the door. Magazine publisher J.R.B. Whitney sparked the establishment of a segregated unit: No. 2 Construction Battalion.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was in a recruitment crisis in 1916. The grinding, bloody war demanded fresh troops. While black soldiers were then not permitted to participate in combat, they would be valuable support. No. 2 Construction Battalion, also known as the Black Battalion, received authorization on July 5, 1916. Launched first in Nova Scotia, recruitment posters appeared in publications across the country:

“Colored men! Your King and Country need You!” the headlines shouted, and “No. 2 Construction Battalion for Colored Men of Canada: Men required for all kinds of construction work.”

Battling discrimination, loyal Canadians were ready to serve. However, “although the battalion had an authorized strength of 1,049 officers and soldiers, recruiting was never able to reach this number,” said Valour Canada.

Battalion members boarded SS Southland on March 28, 1917 for the five-week trip to Europe. Lieutenant-Colonel D.H. Sutherland and 18 officers led the battalion. All were white except for the first Black officer in the Canadian army, Honorary Captain, Chaplain W. Andrew White. The battalion reached only 595 soldiers. Many potential recruits did not meet strict physical standards.

In England, the unit was renamed No. 2 Construction Company and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) working in La Joux, France. “For the CFC this was a bonus as labour battalions were in high demand.”

Troops were deployed immediately, even while under the standard 10-day quarantine. On May 22, “300 of them were working—felling trees, cutting logs, hauling them to the mill and then doing the millwork,” according to Major Mathias Joost, Canadian Military Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3. The soldiers shipped “railway ties, and board and stakes for use in the trenches.”

Another imperative task was water. The Black Canadians ensured that pumps and lines were operational without leaks, moving water “up a rise of 1,500 feet (457m).” In early January 1918, the soldiers operated a power plant that “provided 125 volts/80 amps DC, and was fed by a small boiler in the washroom.”

Continuous demand for wood products fully occupied the Forestry Corps, as important as soldiers in the war theatre. Resilient Black troops slogged through snow, rain, and mud to transport felled logs to the mills on slippery, rutted logging roads. Always in disrepair, the logging roads were inadequate for hauling machinery. Instead, horses provided the power.

The highest quality horses were sent to the front while older, less-healthy horses were given to the Forestry troops. Working with about 100 horses, the soldiers “made the best of their poor steeds, keeping them well-shod and groomed,” Joost said. The war work continued.

By February 1918, Company strength was at 257 men, spread among CFC tasks. “Thirty were employed as teamsters, 50 in the various mills, 50 in bush operations, 30 in shipping, 15 as cooks, 20 in other district employment, and the rest in miscellaneous tasks,” Joost mentioned.

Loading milled railway ties onto vehicles, about 100 members of the Black Battalion “were employed on roadwork, operating a rock-crusher, a steam drill, a steam roller, and trucks.” The soldiers maintained high road standards for over a year, until replaced by the incoming 833 Area Employment Company arrived in August 1918.

The Canadian company engaged in the crucial support needed by the logging teams, “which provided boards for trenches and observation posts, boards for walkways, and starting in April 1918, spruce lumber for the French aircraft industry,” described Valour Canada.

Troops were anxious to participate in combat, and Sutherland requested that his construction unit be sent to the front. The offer rejected, he still prepared his soldiers with rifle and trench training while they continued vital forestry work. The enemy threat eased by June. Disappointed, most did not see action, although several company members were assigned to units at the battlefront. During WW1, 29 members died, mostly from illness and disease, and several from war injuries.

Serving with bravery and honour, the soldiers of No. 2 Construction Battalion began the journey home in January 1919. Their outstanding effort enabled each mill at their location “to produce an average of about 45,000 foot board measure (FBM) of timber a day, compared to about 20,000 FBM for companies that did not have this support,” noted Valour Canada.

Prejudice struck again. No. 2 Construction Battalion returned home to little celebration. The battalion was disbanded on Sept. 15, 1920 with no fanfare. Hard-earned recognition of the largest all-Black battalion in the history of Canada began decades later.

© 2024 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History.

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