Serving despite segregation: No. 2 Construction Battalion

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. Over 800 Black men served with the unit. 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.

A black-and-white drawing of a badge in the shape of a shield. At the top is a royal crown and a banner reading “Canada Overseas.” Beneath are the words “No. 2” above another banner with the word “construction.” Maple leaves adorn each side, and a wooden bridge below the crown and a tool under the second banner symbolize that the unit’s members were builders.

The cap badge for No. 2 Construction Battalion (e011395922)

LAC has identified about 830 men who served in the unit at some point during the war. This is about 200 more names than are generally associated with the unit. The discrepancy reflects the fact that most studies have relied on the “nominal roll” compiled on the day that the unit left Canada for England, in March 1917. 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.

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.

A black-and-white photograph depicting 21 soldiers. They are casually posed outdoors, either sitting or standing on a pile of long wooden planks. Eight of the men appear to be in Russian uniforms, and the rest are Canadians, including two Black men.

Lt. F.N. Ritchie, Lt. Courtney and a few of the enlisted men of the Canadian Forestry Corps in France. This is the only photo of the unit held in the collection at LAC (a022752)

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

9 thoughts on “Serving despite segregation: No. 2 Construction Battalion

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
    Respectfully,
    Jeffrey T Sammons

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

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