Like so many others swept up in the excitement and patriotism that the First World War initially brought on, young Black Canadians were eager to serve King and country. At the time, however, the prejudiced attitudes of many of the people in charge of military enlistment made it very difficult for these men to join the Canadian Army. Despite the barriers, some Black Canadians did manage to join up during the opening years of the war. Black Canadians wanted the chance to do their part on a larger scale, however, and pressured the government to do so.
On July 5, 1916, the No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Pictou, Nova Scotia – the first large Black military unit in Canadian history. Recruitment took place across the country and more than 600 men were eventually accepted, most from Nova Scotia, with others coming from New Brunswick, Ontario, the west and even some from the United States. The Black Battalion’s chaplain was Reverend William White, who had also played a leading role getting the unit formed. He was given the rank of Honourary Captain – one of the few Black commissioned officers to serve in the Canadian Army during the war.
The segregated battalion was tasked with non-combat support roles, After initial service in Canada, the battalion boarded the SS Southland bound for Liverpool, England in March 1917. Its members were sent to eastern France later in 1917 where they served honourably with the Canadian Forestry Corps. There they helped provide the lumber required to maintain trenches on the front lines, as well as helped construct roads and railways. After the end of the First World War in November 1918, the men sailed to Halifax in early 1919 to return to civilian life and the unit was officially disbanded in 1920.
Today, the dedicated service of the “Black Battalion” and other Black Canadians who fought in the First World War is remembered and celebrated as a cornerstone of the proud tradition of Black military service in our country.
Profiles of Courage:
Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones ~ Jeremiah “Jerry” Jones of Truro, Nova Scotia, enlisted in the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) in June of 1916. Being more than 50 years old, he had to lie about his age just to join the army. He was sent overseas and then transferred to the Royal Canadian Regiment where he saw combat on the front lines.
During the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, Private Jones’ unit was pinned down by machine gun fire. Jones volunteered to attack the enemy position, getting close enough to throw a grenade that killed several of the enemy and eliminated the threat of the gun position. The surviving German soldiers surrendered to Jones and he had them carry the machine gun back and drop it at the feet of his commanding officer. Jones was injured in the battle and again in the Battle of Passchendaele later that year, before being discharged in early 1918 because of his injuries.
It is said that he was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but never received it. Jones died in 1950 and efforts were made over the years to get him the official recognition he rightfully deserved. Finally, in 2010, Jones was posthumously awarded the Canadian Forces Distinguished Service Medallion for his heroic actions in the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Curley Christian ~ Ethelbert “Curley” Christian was born in the USA. He eventually settled in Canada where he enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1915 during WWI. On April 9, 1917, Christian was serving with the 78th Canadian Infantry Battalion during the Battle of Vimy Ridge when heavy artillery fire buried him in a trench. All four limbs were crushed by debris and the wounded soldier was trapped for two days. Found barely alive, Christian cheated death again when two of his stretcher bearers were killed by enemy fire while carrying him from the battlefield.
Christian survived but unfortunately gangrene set in and both arms and both legs had to be amputated. His positive demeanor remained, however, and after returning to Canada he married a volunteer aide who worked at the Toronto hospital where he was recuperating.
Christian received artificial limbs and lived a long and active life until his death in 1954. He was one of the more than 8000 veterans who returned to France when the new Canadian National Vimy Memorial was dedicated in July, 1936.