On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The first and only segregated battalion to serve in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War, it achieved an overall maximum strength of approximately 600 officers and men of African descent from across Canada, the United States, and the Caribbean.
Many African Canadians volunteered to serve in the military after Canada entered the First World War in 1914, but while some were able to enlist, others were turned away because of racist assumptions that they were unfit to serve. It took ongoing pressure by the African Canadian community and a looming manpower shortage at the end of 1915 to force a change. Rather than integrating African Canadians into existing units, the Militia Council authorised the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel H. Sutherland, an officer of European descent from Nova Scotia. Arthur Nelson Ware and William James Ware of Calgary, sons of the famous cowboy John Ware, were among the many men who travelled from across Canada to serve in the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Others came from the United States and the West Indies.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion arrived in England in early April 1917. The following month, the renamed No. 2 Construction Company (as it had never reached full battalion strength) made its way to Lajoux, near the Franco-Swiss border. There, the men became part of the Canadian Forestry Corps, overseeing the transportation of logs to the mills, then the finished product to railroad conjunctions. The wood was then shipped out for use as railway ties, and board and stakes for trenches. The battalion was also charged with supervising a station that supplied more than 1,300 men with the water they needed for cooking, drinking, and washing. This was hard work: the weather and the terrain made mechanized operations difficult, the horses they received were considered Category “B” animals (already in poor condition), water lines often leaked, and pumps had to move water up a rise of 1,500 feet. What is more, the men continued to be subjected to racial discrimination and harassment.
In November 1917, an officer and 54 other ranks from the No. 2 Construction Company were attached to 37 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps near Peronne in northern France, coming within close range of advancing German forces during the Spring Offensive of 1918. The No. 2 Construction Company was among the first to be demobilized and sent back to Canada after the war ended with the Allied victory in November.
Nº 2 Construction Battalion, C.E.F. was designated as a national historic event in 1992. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.
The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, persons and events of national historic significance. Any member of the public can submit a subject to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.