ANAVETS Shoulder to Shoulder

September 2016

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8 SHOULDER TO SHOULDER W hen the First World War broke out in August 1914, Canada's black men found themselves in a classic Catch-22 situation: a dilemma from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting conditions. Long before the expression was coined by Joseph Heller as the title of his 1961 novel, black men who wanted to join the army were caught in a bizarre situation. Col. Sam Hughes, Canada's opinionated and bombastic Minister of Militia and Defence, had not placed any restrictions on the enrollment of blacks in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, or CEF. Of course blacks could join, he maintained, but left the final decision up to each individual commanding officer. Most COs demurred, believing white soldiers would not serve alongside blacks. The commander of one New Brunswick battalion was typical; he felt it was unfair that his men "should have to mingle with Negroes." Blacks — and some whites — were outraged, but there was little that could be done in the face of such intransigence. Despite this artificial restriction, about 1,500 blacks were able to enrol in units with more open-minded COs — including some 400 as infantrymen. But these relatively small numbers did not address the desires of many of Canada's 20,000-strong black population and black men were determined to serve in greater numbers. As a result, black community leaders and a few sympathetic whites began a lobbying campaign. They wrote letters of protest and approached local and federal politicians to make their voices heard. Finally, after two years of determined efforts, the government relented. But it did not order COs to begin enrolling blacks; it authorized a segregated unit. Although not exactly the solution they wanted, patriotic blacks could now join the first and only black unit ever established in Canada after Confederation. Because Nova Scotia then had Canada's largest black population — about 7,000 — military authorities chose this province as the location to form the unit. On July 5, 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion was established, quartered on Pictou's Market Wharf. Pictou was near River John, the home of Lieut.-Col. Daniel Suther- land, a well-known railroad contractor who volunteered to command the battalion. Construction battalions are not used in Canada today, but were needed during the First World War for essential engineering tasks. Canada created three of them. Although the other unit officers were white, the chaplain, the Rev. Dr. William White, was black; one of only a handful of black officers in the British Empire during the war. As a padre his captain's rank was honorary however, and carried no command authority. White was from Virginia, the son of a slave. He moved to Nova Scotia in 1900, studied theology at Acadia University and became its first black graduate. The 100th Anniversary of No. 2 Construction Company White moved to Truro, where he was pastor at the Zion Baptist Church. His daughter was renowned contralto Portia White, a classical singer of the 1940s and 50s. After the war, White became pastor of the Cornwallis Street Baptist Church in Halifax. Although CEF units usually recruited locally, No. 2 was permitted to recruit across Canada, making it a national unit. The battalion needed 1,049 all ranks to bring it up to full strength and soon had 180 recruits. Gilbert Lattimore of Halifax signed up first, enrolling a few days after the government authorized the unit. But recruiting soon tapered off and two months later the unit moved to Truro, where Sutherland felt the town's black community might encourage recruiting. The 100 th Anniversary of No. 2 Construction Company by John Boileau The 100 th Anniversary of No. 2 Construction Company Campsite in France

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