Explore the records of No. 2 Construction Battalion

By Andrew Horrall

As described in the “Serving despite segregation” blog, No. 2 Construction Battalion was the first and only segregated Canadian Expeditionary Force unit in the First World War. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has identified and digitized records relating to the unit to make its story, and the individual stories of the men who belonged to it, easy to explore and understand.

A printed form completed by men joining the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The form includes 12 questions about the individual, including name, date of birth and next of kin. At the bottom are a declaration and oath sworn and signed by the man, and a magistrate’s statement and signature confirming that the man had enlisted.

Attestation page for Arthur Bright, Canadian Expeditionary Force, RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 1066 – 39

Individual experiences

Archival records contain details about the individuals who served in No. 2 Construction Battalion. Each story is unique and evocative.

You can find the men’s individual personnel records by searching their names, or by entering “No. 2 Construction Battalion” in the “Unit” field in our database. Each file has been completely digitized and includes detailed information about the individual’s life, family and military service.

Friends and families serving together

Personnel records can also tell collective stories. We know that men often joined-up in small groups of family, friends or co-workers in hopes of serving together.

Here are two strategies to find and explore these small groups within the unit. Start by identifying all of the men, by entering “No. 2 Construction Battalion” in the “Unit” field in our database, then:

  • Sort the list in alphabetical order. You will see that many surnames appear more than once. Open the individual files of men with shared names and look at their places of birth, addresses and next of kin (often a parent) to explore whether and how they were related.

For example, we can see that these two men were brothers:

  • Sort the list by regimental service number. These were assigned to men in numerical order. Sorting the list in numerical order can recreate the lines of men as they enlisted at a recruiting station. Open the individual files to explore whether a man joined up alone or with a group.

For example, we know that the Bright brothers joined up together because they were assigned sequential service numbers. We also discover that the men with numbers on either side of them—who would have been standing next to them in the recruiting office in 1916—were all of similar age and occupation, and lived within a kilometre of one another in St. Catharines. How did they know each other?

Follow the men in civilian life

To explore Black Canadian history more widely, you can also find out about the civilian lives of many of the men by entering their names in other LAC databases in the “Ancestors Search” section of our website:

  • The 1911, 1916 and 1921 Canadian censuses; for example, the 1921 census lists Arthur and Norman Bright living together as lodgers at 3 Brown’s Lane, in downtown Toronto. Neither was married, and they were both working as labourers.
  • Passenger lists show when, where and with whom individuals immigrated to Canada.
  • Personnel records can open pathways for exploring Canada’s early-20th-century Black community and what it meant to serve in No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Two pages of a personal diary. The date is printed at the top of each page, October 30 and 31. Underneath it, Captain White wrote general observations about the weather, letters he wrote and received, and life in camp.

Two pages from the personal diary of Captain William  “Andrew” White, the unit’s chaplain (e011183038)

Day-to-day life in the unit

Two digitized documents allow you to explore the unit’s daily activities:

  • The personal diary of William “Andrew” White, No. 2 Construction Battalion’s chaplain. We believe that this is the only first-hand account written by a member of the unit.
  • The War Diary. Units on active service were required to keep a daily account of their activities. While war diaries do not focus on individuals, they describe the events that took place each day.

How the Canadian military managed the unit

LAC has digitized about half of the administrative, organizational and historical records relating to the unit. These documents provide insights into how the Canadian military managed the unit and the men belonging to it.

Digitized resources documenting No. 2 Construction Company held at LAC

Basic information about the unit

Other photographs depicting Black soldiers

Note that LAC holds many other photos showing Black soldiers, but these cannot be found in a regular search, since that information was not included in the original title.

Recruiting poster

Textual records

Records that may be consulted at LAC (not available digitally)

Department of Militia and Defence

Department of National Defence


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.

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