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Building Bridges in the First World War

For the week of Monday February 17, 2014

On February 21, 1917, Major General Willoughby Gwatkin requested permission for the all-black No. 2 Construction Battalion to sail to Europe to participate in the First World War. Despite racial prejudices, the battalion served both in Canada and in Europe, constructing bridges, roads and railways. 

Soldiers in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F.
© Courtesy of Windsor’s Community Museum (file P6110)

When the First World War broke out in 1914, many Canadians were eager to take part in the war effort and Black Canadians were no exception. Most were initially turned away from recruitment stations, though some eventually made it to the front. Although there was no official policy preventing Black Canadians from enlisting, they were often told it was a “white man’s war.” Even when recruited, other soldiers were reluctant to fight by their side.

Once the war was underway and the need for manpower had greatly increased, the government could no longer ignore the desire of Black Canadians to enlist. The solution was to create a separate battalion stationed in Pictou, Nova Scotia, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Hugh Sutherland. Unlike other units, Sutherland reported directly to the Militia Council in Ottawa in order to prevent racism in the chain of command. As well, the unit was allowed to recruit from all over the country, since few other battalions would accept Black recruits. While most soldiers in the No. 2 Construction Battalion were Nova Scotian, many came from communities across Canada, such as Saint John, N.B., Dresden, ON, and Montréal, QC. They were even joined by nearly 170 African-American volunteers.

Posters like this one were used to recruit from across Canada for the No. 2 Construction Battalion
© Esther Clark Wright Archives, Acadia University

On March 28, 1917, the No. 2 Construction Battalion sailed for Liverpool, England, before joining up with the Canadian Forestry Corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in France. Some of its members made it to the trenches, but the Construction Battalion mainly served in non-combat roles, preparing lumber to build the trenches and building roads, bridges and railways.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F. was designated a National Historic Event in 1992 for overcoming discrimination and contributing to Canada’s war effort. You can read more about its importance here: The First Black Battalion in Canada.

February is Black History Month! To celebrate, learn more about Black Canadian heritage by reading the following stories in the This Week in History archive: William Neilson Hall Awarded the Victoria Cross, The Fight against Racial Discrimination and Africville's Life After Death.

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