By Andrew Horrall
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds the largest collection of records documenting No. 2 Construction Battalion, a segregated unit of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the First World War. They wanted to fight, but racist attitudes among political and military leaders, and in society in general, prevented them from serving in the front lines. Instead, the unit was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps. The men spent the war in the French Alps, cutting down trees, milling raw logs into finished lumber and transporting the wood to the railway. The work was vital, since huge quantities of wood were needed to build and reinforce front-line defences, but it was far from the type of service that the men had hoped for.
Canadian Expeditionary Force service files
- (unit members are identified by “No. 2 Construction Battalion” in the database’s “Unit” field
Users should be aware that the military service files of over 800 men indicate No. 2 Construction Company as their unit, though many of these men never actually served with No. 2 Construction Company. Instead, they served with other CEF units. The reasons for the discrepancy between the information in personnel files and unit files is not entirely clear. It is likely that Canadian military authorities intended for the men to serve with No. 2 Construction Company, but pressing needs caused them to assign the men to other units. In other cases, the war may have ended before individuals could physically join No. 2 Construction Company.)
The unit was mobilized at Truro, Nova Scotia, in July 1916. It recruited from established Black communities in the Maritimes, southwestern Ontario, and across Canada, the Caribbean and the United States. At least two members were from much farther away: Cowasjee Karachi (regimental number 931759) came from modern-day Yemen, and Valdo Schita (regimental number 931643) was born near Johannesburg, South Africa.
While the unit was composed of Black men, the officers were white, apart from the chaplain, Captain William “Andrew” White.
The unit is referred to by both the terms “battalion” and “company” in archival documents and published sources. It was originally created as a battalion, a unit composed of about 1,000 men in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. When only about 600 men arrived in England in 1917, military authorities redesignated it as a company, which better reflected its size.
The unit returned to Canada at the end of the war and was officially disbanded in September 1920. The story of No. 2 Construction Battalion faded over time, until families, community members and historians began recovering it in the early 1980s. By that time, there were only a handful of surviving members.
A note about terms used in the records
Many of the records documenting No. 2 Construction Company contain terms that were commonly used during the First World War but are no longer acceptable. LAC has replaced such terms in descriptions, but they are still found in many of the original documents. The use of these terms by military authorities is evidence of the racism faced by the men in the unit.
Andrew Horrall is an archivist at Library and Archives Canada. He wrote the blog and, with Alexander Comber and Mary Margaret Johnston-Miller, identified records relating to the battalion
This sentence is misleading : “They wanted to fight, but racist attitudes among political and military leaders, and in society in general, prevented them from serving in the front lines”. It suggests that black men were not accepted elsewhere in the army. According to Veteran Affairs Canada (https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng//remembrance/people-and-stories/black-canadians):
In addition to the men of the Black Battalion, more than 700 Black Canadians – including soldiers like James Grant, Roy Fells, James Post, Lancelot Bertrand, Henry Thomas Shepherd, Miles Dymond, Jeremiah Jones and Curly Christian – also managed to join other units. They would offer distinguished service that earned some of them medals for bravery at places like Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Hill 70 and Passchendaele.
Thank you for bringing this to our attention. I apologize for any confusion this sentence may have caused. This blogpost was intended to refer only to the men who served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion, rather than to all the black men who served during the First World War. LAC is aware that Black men served in many Canadian units and is working identify them by name and facilitate researchers’ ability to locate their service files.
Kathy Grant here from Blackcanadianveterans.com Approx 40 years ago Thamis Gale identified over 1300 Black men who served in the CEF including those in non segregated units and also No 2. I was gifted that research. Thamis’ father served in No2 and I have records of hundreds of Blacks who served in non segregated units. Would love to collaborate as we have been documenting the stories of Blacks in the CEF for over 35 years.
These stories are soooo important to share… thank you!
Please see Jeffrey T Sammons and John H Morrow, Jr. Harlem’s Rattlers and The Great War for a more detailed treatment of Valdo Schita who was an imposter and borderline psychopath. He probably was from Tennessee or Kentucky. After leaving Construction Battalion #2, he joined the 15th/369th aka Harlem Hell Fighters and killed a fellow soldier.
Jeffrey T Sammons
Thank you for bringing this source to LAC’s attention. It demonstrates how the internet is helping to reveal and deepen our understanding of history. Readers of this blog will be now be able to learn about Valdo Schita’s story.
Thank you and no doubt more information pertinent to the 2nd Construction. Living in southwestern Ontario and keenly aware through research there were many hurdles for the Ontario group to train and move on to Truro. They lost living quarters at the Windsor Ontario race course due to a fire.
No 2 Construction was formed as a Labour Battalion and was advertised as such. The men were not to “fight at the front”. Back in the 1980s close to 800 men were identified as being connected to No2 by Thamis Gale whose father was in No 2. He gathered names from the honour rolls of the Black Churches across Canada e.g. Union United in Montreal, Churches in Niagara Falls region, Windsor Chatham , the Independent Order of the Daughters of the Empire . It is important to recognize and acknowledge the efforts of educator Thamis Gale of the Black Community. He would have turned 100 this year and passed away in 1991. Respect. Where can the list of 830 be obtained? Thanks
Hello re “By re-examining the records in the collection, LAC experts identified many men who served with the unit after it sailed. Their names do not appear on the nominal roll because they were not in the unit on the day it left Canada. While we believe that every man who served with the unit has been identified, additional members may come to light.” Of the approx 800 men linked to the No 2 , several were released due to medical reasons or deserted. Some were added as a result of conscription …many from the London south western Ontario area and some transferred from other units.
The men from London Ontario were to be attached to No2 Construction but it was officially done. They were part of 1st Depot Battalion and many of their regimental numbers start with 313 or 400 series. These men should not be included as part No 2 Construction soldiers. Some examples are Archie Ladd 3138838 and John Ladd 4005024 . They joined in 1918.
Other examples are Clarence Lewis 3136734 and Herbert Lewis 3131282. There are close to 40 in this category. Part of the research of Thamis Gale and the Amherstburg Museum . Historian Elise Harding Davis played a roll in preparing this list. Elise is still around and this list was presented to media in 2021.