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