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Sunday, 13 June 2021

Guysborough County's No. 2 Construction Battalion Enlistments, Part 2

 This blog post is the second of a series of posts, summarizing the information available on the life and First World War service of Guysborough County's 24 No. 2 Construction Battalion enlistments. Readers are asked to notify the blog author if there are any errors, or if a reader has additional information on any of the men profiled in these posts.


4. Private George Borden:

George Borden was born at Goldenville, Guysborough County, the son of James and Alice (Parris) Borden. While his attestation papers list his year of birth as 1896, a medical document in his service file records the date as September 20, 1899. George’s father James was a native of Guysborough, the son of James Frederick and Mary Borden. His mother Alice was born at Goldenville, the daughter of Jeremiah and Jane (Dismal) Parris.

George was a late enlistment with No. 2 Construction Battalion, joining the unit at Truro, NS, on February 10, 1917. At the time, he claimed that both of his parents were deceased, although genealogical sources indicate that this was not the case. George listed his aunt—his mother’s sister, Mrs. Norman (Rosa Ann Parris) Parris, Grammar St., New Glasgow, NS—as his next of kin.

Six weeks after his enlistment, George departed from Halifax aboard SS Southland and disembarked at Liverpool, UK, with his No. 2 Construction mates in early April. On May 25, George proceeded to France as part of a large group of No. 2 Construction personnel assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps’ Jura District.

No. 2 Construction’s men worked in aspects of timber harvesting operations—logging, sawmill, lumberyard and shipping—alongside CFC personnel. While small groups of No. 2 Construction men were transferred to two other CFC locations in France in late 1917, George spent his entire overseas service at Jura.

In February 1918, shortly after the first anniversary of his enlistment, George was granted three weeks’ leave. In mid-June, he was “admonished and placed under stoppage of pay to make good the value of missing articles,” specifically “one pair puttees [and] one jacket” that he had lost “by neglect.” With the exception of a brief stay in hospital in late July, the remainder of George’s time at Jura was uneventful.

On December 12, 1918, George returned to the UK with his comrades and was attached to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Camp Bramshott, two days later. While the remainder of No. 2 Construction’s personnel departed for Canada on January 12, 1919, George remained in the UK, were he was promoted to the rank of “Acting Corporal without pay and allowances while specially employed.”

On February 1, George was “taken on strength” for sentry duty at No. 6 Military District, Rhyl. The location contained thousands of Canadian soldiers awaiting orders to return to Canada. Five days after reporting for duty, George was placed in the camp’s isolation unit with a case of mumps. Discharged on March 1, he served at Rhyl for four weeks, at which time he proceeded by train to Glasgow, Scotland, and boarded SS Saturnia for the return journey to Canada.

George was discharged at Halifax on April 14, 1919. Three months later, he crossed into the United States at McAdam, NB, and proceeded to Boston, MA. George found employment as a cook and established residence in the suburb of Roxbury. Two years later, he travelled by train from Boston to New Glasgow, and visited family in Goldenville before returning to the US.

On June 21, 1928, George married Hilda Wilson, a native of The Crawl, Hamilton, Bermuda, who had immigrated to the US with her family in 1910. The couple established residence at 7 Copeland St., Roxbury, where George was building custodian. Three children soon joined the Borden family—a daughter Lois (November 22, 1930) and twin boys Donald and Douglas (October 8, 1932).

Six years into George’s and Hilda’s marriage, a routine incident spiralled out of control, resulting in tragedy for the Borden family. At 1:30 pm Sunday, July 8, 1934, Registry of Motor Vehicles Inspector Everett T. Gardner and Special Officer William R. Harmon arrived at the Borden residence at 7 Copeland St., Roxbury. While on official business, neither was in uniform at the time.

Apparently, Inspector Gardner had attempted to stop George for a motor vehicle infraction, but he sped away. Gardner and Harmon intended to serve George with an arrest warrant for three motor vehicle infractions: operating a motor vehicle after his license was revoked, failing to stop when signalled by a motor vehicle inspector, and driving in a manner that endangered the lives and safety of the public.

While Harmon went into the building, Gardner guarded a rear entrance. Harmon knocked on the door of the Borden family apartment and identified himself as a police officer. At first, George denied that he was the man they were seeking, but soon acknowledged his identity and asked permission to make a phone call from a suite on the second floor. As he made his way up the stairs, he attempted to flee, exiting the building and running across the street into another tenement with Harmon in pursuit.

As George entered the second building, Harmon fired two warning shots, one into the air and a second into the ground. Gardner, hearing the shots, made his way into the street and remained there while Harmon followed George into the building. A few minutes later, Gardner heard the sound of glass breaking. Peering down an alley beside the building, he saw George climb out of a basement window and attempt to flee.

Harmon aimed his weapon at George and fired three shots, striking him in the left side, right ankle and right wrist. George managed to make his way to the rear of the building, where he collapsed. He was rushed to City Hospital, where he immediately received a blood transfusion and was placed on the “serious condition” list. According to the Boston Globe, the incident was believed to have been the first time that a motor vehicles inspector fired his weapon in an attempt to execute an arrest.

Events in the aftermath of George’s shooting followed a predictable pattern. Police claimed that Borden had placed his right hand in a rear trouser pocket after climbing out of the cellar and appeared to be drawing a weapon when Gardner fired. A later statement claimed that George had a “black object” in his hand. While a search of the area behind the building failed to locate a weapon of any kind, police later claimed that a knife found in the cellar belonged to George.

Two days after the incident, The Boston Globe reported that a Roxbury Court would examine the facts surrounding the incident, to determine whether Inspector Gardner acted in self-defence. The news item also reported that George, in “fair” condition in hospital, was interviewed by a Motor Vehicles Inspector and Boston Police Lieutenant. He denied owning a revolver and declared that he did not have a weapon in his possession when he was shot. Meanwhile, the Roxbury Court ruled that Inspector Gardner had acted in self-defence and absolved him from all responsibility.

On the night of Friday, July 13, 1934, George Borden passed away at City Hospital. His death had a dramatic impact on an already tense situation. Several community organizations—the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and the National Equal Rights League—had already held meetings, demanding a full public inquiry into the shooting.

Under considerable pressure to act, Boston Police announced that an investigation into the incident would take place before a magistrate in Roxbury Court on July 16. When the hearing convened, Inspector Gardner was formally charged with manslaughter pending the outcome of the investigation, and released on $1,000 bail.

The following day, George’s funeral took place at the International Hall, Shawmut Ave., Roxbury. A total of 14 automobiles and more than 200 friends and sympathizers, consisting of white and black citizens, formed a parade behind his casket as it traveled from the funeral home to the hall. Amplifiers broadcast the service to a crowd of 500 who stood outside the packed hall. Several representatives of the Boston Police also attended the ceremony.

George Borden was laid to rest in Mount Hope Cemetery, Boston, MA. A Boston Globe article, dated October 31, 1934, indicated that the inquiry into George’s death continued for more than three months. The news item reported that Special Officer William R. Harmon saw a “dark object” in George’s hand shortly before he was shot, suggesting that the manslaughter charges brought against Inspector Gardner were likely to be dismissed, on “self-defence” grounds.

George’s widow Hilda never re-married. Predeceased by her twin sons, she passed away at Roxbury on October 22, 1983.

Special thanks to Marie Terese, Redican, Allentown, PA, who provided a series of Boston Globe articles concerning George's tragic shooting and information on George's wife, Hilda Wilson.

5. Private Norman Arthur Bowden:

Norman Arthur Bowden was born at Guysborough, Nova Scotia, on October 26, 1885, the son of William Arthur and Margaret A. (Skinner) Bowden. William was the son of Levi and Elizabeth Bowden, while Margaret was the daughter of George and Eliza Skinner. Norman was living in his parents’ household in the 1891 and 1901 censuses, but had left home by 1911. His whereabouts at that time are unknown, but by 1915 he was residing at Victoria, British Columbia, where he was employed as a “bootblack” and porter at a saloon operated by Scottish proprietors.

After relocating to Victoria, Norman met Della Daisy (Gibson) Bishop, a widow and native of San Angelo, Texas. Della was the oldest of 13 children—her son later described her as a “go-getter” who “could see that there was no future at that time for black people in Texas.” Della made her way to Victoria, BC, where she met Norman at a weekly Sunday gathering held in one of the local black community’s homes.

Norman and Della established residence at 1009 Fort St., where their son, Norman Leland, was born during the summer of 1915. Life continued as normal for more than a year, until Norman made a decision that significantly impacted his young family. On November 6, 1916, he attested for service with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Victoria.

Unlike other military units, No. 2 Construction Battalion received official permission to conduct a nation-wide recruitment campaign. Norman was one of a small number of British Columbia enlistments. Leaving his 14-month-old son in Della’s care, he traveled across the country by rail to Truro, NS, where he joined the unit’s ranks.

After spending the winter of 1916-17 training at Truro, No. 2 Construction’s personnel made their way to Halifax in late March 1917, boarded SS Southland and departed for overseas. The unit arrived in the United Kingdom on April 7 and remained there for six weeks. On March 17, 1917, Norman departed for France with a large detachment of No. 2 Construction personnel. The group made its way to the Canadian Forestry Corps’ Jura District, where Norman and his comrades served alongside CFC units, participating in all aspects of harvesting and processing timber, as well as shipping lumber products to the forward area.

Norman’s time overseas was largely uneventful. On February 12, 1918, he was granted 14 days’ leave to the United Kingdom and rejoined his unit on March 3. On June 1, 1918, he was hospitalized at La Joux, Jura, with a case of mumps and discharged to duty three weeks later.

A second 14-day leave to the United Kingdom on November 25, 1918 was somewhat more eventful. On December 7, Norman was admitted to 5th London General Hospital, Lambeth, suffering from a “concussion of [the] brain.” The brief note stated that he had been “injured in [the] street” and was “brought in suffering from concussion.” Norman’s service file contains no other details on the incident.

Norman was discharged from hospital on December, but remained in the United Kingdom as his No. 2 Construction mates departed France that same day. Instead of rejoining the unit’s ranks, Norman was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, where he was attached to the Depot Company. As a result, he did not depart for Canada with his former unit, which returned to Canada on January 12.

Norman remained overseas for another month, departing the United Kingdom aboard the Empress of Britain on February 17, 1919. Upon arriving in Canada eight days later, he made the long train journey to Vancouver, where he was discharged from military service on March 22, 1919. He then returned to his Victoria residence.

Norman’s young son later recalled his father’s return home:

“I don’t remember when he left for the war, but I do remember when he came back. All the time he was overseas, my mother used to constantly show me a picture of ‘your father.’ When the soldiers came back, they’re all in a mess hall—this was 1918 [actually March 1919]—all there drinking coffee, and I took one look and I could recognize him from the picture that my mother kept showing me.”

Norman and Della were formally married at Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, BC, on August 19, 1919. His son Norman Jr. later recalled their family home on Fort St. and the nearby Empress Hotel on waterfront, where “you can sit right there on the bench and look out over the ocean where the boat [from the British Columbia mainland] comes in.”

Several years after Norman Sr.’s return from overseas, the family relocated to Los Angeles, California, in stages. According to Norman Jr.:

“My mother had got her mother and her baby sister up from Texas to take care of them in Canada. Then we all left and came to the States. This was December 22, 1921. My auntie and her mother came here first, my mother and I came second, and 10 months or a year later, my father came last. [Later immigration records indicate that Norman Sr. arrived in California in 1923.] We all came at different times. When my mother and I got here, her younger sister was already here and married and was established so we lived with them until we sorted ourselves.”

Della insisted that her son receive a proper education. Norman Jr. started his schooling in Victoria, where most of his classmates were white. After arriving in Los Angeles, he continued his studies in a segregated school. He described the experience as “a strange thing for me,” as “I’d never gone to school with black children before.” It was in this new school setting that Norman Jr. was introduced to the world of music, an experience that was life-altering.

The school’s music teacher, a Welshman, was a violinist and introduced his students to the instrument. Norman Jr. described him as a marvelous musician—“He’d take a violin and make it sound like magic”—and a “wonderful teacher.” However, the two “did not get along… too well because I was wanting to improvise and play jazz. He didn’t like that. He’d tap me on the fingers and say, ‘That kind of music you play, you’ll never amount to a thing; you’ll never amount to nothin.’ He was always telling me that. He didn’t want to let jazz into the school.”

The spark did not take long to become a fire. Inspired by American jazz legend Louis Armstrong, “Norm”—as he was known in music circles—took up the trumpet in his mid-teens and as a young man frequented the jazz clubs located along Los Angeles’ Central Avenue. By the 1940s, he was a fixture in the vibrant music scene known as “West Coast Harlem.” Norm played at dance halls and after-hour clubs, and toured with several bands, covering such musical genres as big band, rhythm and blues and Dixieland.

Norman Leland Bowden

Meanwhile, Norman Sr. settled into life in Los Angeles, where he found work as a machinist. While far from his Guysborough County roots, he made at least one trip to Nova Scotia, visiting his younger sister, Mabel Augusta (Mrs. George Howard Lawrence) in New Glasgow during the summer of 1947. Norman returned to Los Angeles in early August, and spent his remaining years there.

Norman Arthur Borden passed away at Los Angeles on May 19, 1964. His son Norm lived a long and productive life in the city’s music scene, his final public performance taking place at La Louisanne Creole Restaurant, Los Angeles, in 2007 at the age of 91. Norman Leland Borden passed away at Los Angeles on June 1, 2017.

Special thanks to Marie Terese, Redican, Allentown, PA, who provided valuable information on Norman's wife Della.

6. Private Joseph Clyke (aka Brodie):

Joseph “Joe” Clyke (aka Brodie) was born at Guysborough, Nova Scotia, on February 14, 1900. His parents’ names are unknown. Joe was the grandson of John and Eliza (Skinner) Brodie. John, a mariner by occupation and the son of William and Eunice Brodie, married Eliza, the daughter of William and Ellen Skinner, at Guysborough on May 14, 1870.

John passed away sometime before 1901, as that year’s census records list Eliza Brodie, widow, age 50, as head of the family, residing at Guysborough with her daughters Mary, Annie, Sarah, and Harly, son Burton, and grandson Joseph, age one. In 1907, Eliza married Archibald “Archie” Clyke, a 54-year-old widower and son of William and Johanna Clyke.

The 1911 census lists 58-year-old Archibald Clyke as head of a household that included his wife Eliza, age 61, and “adopted son” Joseph Brodie, age 11. Living next door to the Clyke family were Eliza’s son Burton, his wife Nellie (Clyke), and their children Gertie, age seven, and Annie, age four.

On September 22, 1916, Joe enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Truro, NS. At the time, he gave his birth year as 1899, exaggerating his age by one year—he was actually 16 years old at the time. Joe also gave his last name as “Clyke” and listed his grandmother, Elizabeth “Eliza” (Mrs. Archie) Clyke, as his next of kin.

Joe departed for overseas with No. 2 Construction Battalion on March 25, 1917, and disembarked at Liverpool, United Kingdom, 12 days later. On May 17, 1917, he departed for France with a large group of No. 2 Construction personnel, who made their way to the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) Jura District, near the France - Switzerland border.

Throughout the remainder of 1917, No. 2 Construction personnel served alongside men from several CFC companies, working in the Jura area’s forests, the mill that processed harvested logs, and the shipping facility that loaded lumber onto rail cars for transport to the forward area. One of the mill’s major products was railroad ties for small-gauge lines constructed immediately behind the front trenches.

On December 30, 1917, Joe was among a group of No. 2 Construction men transferred to the CFC’s Alençon District, west of Paris and north of Le Mans, France, where several CFC companies harvested and processed timber from the nearby Forêt d’Écouvres. The majority of the transfers were natives of the Caribbean Islands and authorities at Jura were concerned that the colder weather at Jura might have a harmful impact on their health.

The fact that these men had worked throughout the months of November and December without any health issues raised questions as to whether such a move was necessary. CFC authorities, however, decided to follow the recommendations of Jura District’s medical officer and relocated the selected men to the area, where winter conditions were considerably less harsh.

Joe worked in the Alençon District for the remainder of his time overseas. Several entries in his service file suggest that youthful exuberance may have resulted in several discipline infractions. In mid-November 1918, he was confined to barracks for two weeks for “creating a disturbance.” As this punishment expired, Joe earned another 10 days’ confinement for being “AWL [absent without leave] from 22.00 26-11-18 to 07.00 27-11-18,” a fairly common occurrence among personnel at CFC camps.

On December 14, Joe returned to the United Kingdom with the rest of No. 2 Construction’s personnel. One month later, he and his comrades departed for Canada aboard the Empress of Britain. Joe disembarked at Halifax on January 22, 1919, and was formally discharged from military service on February 15, 1919.

Joe listed “Guysborough” as his address on discharge and his British War and Victory service medals were dispatched to that location on December 12, 1922. Unfortunately, no further information is currently available on his later life.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Guysborough County's No. 2 Construction Battalion Enlistments, Part 1

This blog post is the first of a series of posts, summarizing the information available on the life and First World War service of Guysborough County's 24 No. 2 Construction Battalion enlistments. Readers are asked to notify the blog author if there are any errors, or if a reader has additional information on any of the men profiled in these posts. 

1. Private Thomas Ash Jr.:

According to his military enlistment papers, Thomas Ash Jr. was born at Big Tracadie, Guysborough County, on December 25, 1898. A medical document in his service file gives the date as September 8, 1898. At the time of the 1901 census, the Ash family consisted of parents Thomas Sr. (January 8, 1862) and Sarah Jane (maiden surname Day, DOB July 5, 1875) Ash, their five sons—Norman (January 4, 1899), Thomas Jr. (May 4, 1897), James (August 8, 1896), Freeman (September 4, 1893) and Ernest (March 5, 1892)—and Thomas Sr.’s mother Sarah (June 10, 1820).

Over the following decade, four more children—Redmond (March 1903), Rebecca (August 1904), Clara (December 1906) and Mary Ann (June 1908)—joined the family. A fifth child, Adelia “Delia” (December 1891), was not listed in the 1901 census but was part of the household in 1911.

Thomas Sr. passed away at Upper Big Tracadie on January 25, 1911. Only 49 years of age at the time, he had suffered from “dropsy” (acute swelling of extremities, due to fluid retention) for eight months prior to his death. The symptom suggests that he was suffering from either kidney failure or congestive heart failure. Thomas Sr.’s passing left his widow Jane with the challenge of supporting a large family on the family farm, with the help of her oldest sons.

On September 22, 1916, 17-year-old Thomas Ash Jr. attested for service with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Truro, NS. At the time of his enlistment, he stood five feet ten inches and weighed 160 pounds, a sturdy constitution in comparison to many of his comrades. Thomas was briefly hospitalized with tonsillitis in mid-December, but fully recovered. He departed for overseas with the unit on March 28, 1917, and disembarked at Liverpool, UK, nine days later.

Thomas was one of the 495 No. 2 Construction “other ranks” who crossed the English Channel to France on May 17, 1917, in the company of 11 officers. Three days later, the group arrived in the Jura district of eastern France, near the Swiss border, where the men were attached to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) for duty.

Thomas worked in the Jura District without incident throughout the summer on 1917. On October 25, he was hospitalized for what appeared to be influenza. Medical records briefly summarized his medical history at the time: “Began feeling weaker in October and soon after face, hands and feet became swollen. Has severe occipital headache. Previous to this time he had good health.”

While Thomas improved sufficiently to be discharged to duty after six days, his recovery was temporary. On November 21, he was admitted to hospital at Champagnole, where doctors determined that he was suffering from “nephritis acute” (kidney disease). His headache had returned and he was also experiencing the severe back pain associated with a kidney ailment.

Thomas remained in the Jura District hospital until late February 1918, when he was transferred to No. 8 General Hospital, Rouen. Doctors there attributed the cause of his illness as “exposure” to damp, cold working conditions. On March 3, 1918, Thomas was invalided to the United Kingdom, where he was admitted to Chester War Hospital. At the time of Thomas’s arrival, the hospital reported no outward symptoms, other than weakness and diminished urine output.

Thomas received a treatment regimen that included bed rest, a milk diet, and administration of “iron mist.” On July 29, he had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to Kings Canadian Red Cross Special Hospital, Bushy Park, Hampton Hill. Thomas spent almost two months at the facility before departing for Canada aboard HMT “K” on September 24.

The vessel docked at Quebec on October 7 and Thomas made his way to Nova Scotia by rail. Upon arriving at Halifax, he was admitted to Pine Hill Hospital and remained under medical care throughout the autumn and winter of 1918-19. A note on his medical file, dated January 8, 1919, summarized his situation at admission: “Has been under treatment since February 1918. Feels well now. Is anaemic. Some puffiness under eyes and feet swell if he walks much. Tongue badly coated.”

In mid-March 1919, medical staff noted that Thomas “has improved considerably in the last two months.” Discharged from hospital on March 21, 1919, he was released from military service one week later and returned home to Big Tracadie. At the time of the 1921 Canadian census, Thomas was living at home with his widowed mother Jane, brother Redmond, and sisters Clara and Delia, who had married the previous year. Also residing in the house was Delia’s one-month-old daughter, Evangeline Cox.

Sometime after 1921, Thomas relocated to Sydney, where he went to work in the local coal mines. On December 14, 1926, he married Elena Gero, daughter of John J. and Annie (Sheppard) Gero. At some point after their marriage, the couple returned to Big Tracadie, where Thomas operated a farm. Thomas and Elena, welcomed a daughter, Marion Lahaina—their only child—on January 24, 1931.

The health issues that plagued Thomas during his time overseas resurfaced several years after his daughter’s birth. He passed away at Upper Big Tracadie on January 29, 1935. The doctor who completed the death certificate identified the cause of death as “dropsy,” the same condition that had claimed his father’s life almost exactly 24 years previously. Considering Thomas Jr.’s prior medical history, the most likely cause of death was kidney failure, which would directly connect his passing to his time in uniform. Thomas Ash was laid to rest in Sunnyview Cemetery, Tracadie.

Pte. Thomas Ash's headstone, Sunnyview Cemetery

2. Private John Joseph Backus:

According to his First World War attestation papers, John Joseph Backus (Bacchus) was born at Goldenville, Guysborough County, on December 20, 1876. A medical document completed prior to his discharge recorded his date of birth as December 24, 1868, while the Canadian census conducted in April 1871 lists John’s age as one year old at the time. This information suggests that John’s year of birth was likely 1869 or 1870.

John’s parents, Joseph Backus and Annie Williams, raised a large family in the small mining community near Sherbrooke—William (c. 1862), John (c. 1869), Elizabeth “Libbie” (c. 1871), Margaret (c. 1872), Carrie (c. 1878), Eva (c. 1882), Harriet (c. 1884) and Ruth (c.1886). John appears to have travelled extensively during his younger years. On January 15, 1897, he married Mary (Burk) Murphy, a native of Utica, NY, at Boston, MA. Records state that it was the second marriage for both participants. (The identity of John’s first wife is unknown, but this marriage appears to have produced two daughters, later identified in his military service file.)

On September 16, 1916, John enlisted with the No. 2 Construction Battalion at Montreal, QC. His attestation papers list his occupation at the time as “teamster and vetinary [sic - veterinary],” suggesting extensive experience working with horses. The “Particulars of Family” form in his service file indicates that John was a widower, with two adult daughters—Gertrude, age 24 years, and Maud, age 26 years.

Following his enlistment, John travelled by rail to Truro, NS, where he joined No. 2 Construction’s ranks. He spent the autumn and winter of 1916-17 in Nova Scotia, departing for overseas with the unit on March 28, 1917, and arrived at Liverpool, UK, 12 days later. On May 17, John landed in France with a detachment of 495 No. 2 Construction “other ranks” and 11 officers, all of whom proceeded to No. 5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC), which operated in the Jura District of eastern France, close to the Swiss border.

Given John’s age—he was at least 40 years old at the time of his enlistment—and background, he most likely tended to the horses that were a vital resource in the harvesting of timber. Each CFC site contained a large stable, where the animals received daily care and were closely monitored for illness or injury.

On December 30, 1917, John was part of a group of 180 “other ranks” (OR) and two officers that departed from Jura and reported for duty with Central Group CFC, No. 1 District, Alençon. A total of nine CFC companies logged the Normandy forests in the District. The camps were quite diverse, containing a mixture of white CFC personnel, black No. 2 Construction men, several groups of Russian reinforcements, and German POW work parties.

John remained at Alençon for the duration of his time in France. He enjoyed a 14-day leave in September 1918 and returned to the United Kingdom with the unit on December 14, 1918. Hospitalized with pleurisy on January 1, 1919, he spent two weeks under medical care. As a result, John did not travel to Canada with his No. 2 Construction mates, who departed on January 12. Instead, he returned aboard HMTS Aquitania six days later and was discharged from military service at Halifax on February 19.

John returned home to Goldenville, and was still residing there at the time of the 1921 census, which identifies him as a 53-year-old, widowed labourer, living by himself. In mid-November 1922, his military service medals were dispatched to his Goldenville address.

On December 6, 1922, John married Eliza Janette Ash, daughter of Joseph and Julia (Reid) Ash, Boylston. The couple took up residence at Goldenville. Eliza passed away at Aberdeen Hospital, New Glasgow, on July 9, 1932. According to her death certificate, Eliza was a widow at the time of her passing, meaning that John passed away sometime between the couple’s December 1922 marriage and Eliza’s July 1932 death. No documented record of his passing can be located.

No. 2 Construction Battalion Badge

3. Private David George Borden:

David George Borden was born at Tracadie, Guysborough County, on April 2, 1882, the son of George and Lydia (Clyke) Borden. David was living in Sydney at the time of his December 6, 1901 marriage to Ida Bowen, a 27-year-old widow and daughter of George and “Mrs. L.” Brown, as identified on the couple’s marriage license. By 1911, David and Ida had relocated to Truro, where they were residing with a daughter Pearly at the time of the Canadian census.

David was one of No. 2 Construction Battalion’s early recruits, attesting for service with the unit at Halifax on August 29, 1916. At the time, he identified his mother Lydia, Leeman’s Lane, Truro, as his next of kin. According to his service file, David’s father George was deceased at the time of his enlistment.

David spent an uneventful autumn and winter at Pictou and Truro training with the battalion. On March 16, 1917, he was admitted to General Hospital, Truro, for treatment of rheumatism, but was discharged in time to join his comrades aboard SS Southland as they departed for overseas before month’s end.

On April 7, 1917, David arrived at Liverpool, England, and spent six weeks in the United Kingdom with the unit before departing for France with approximately 500 of No. 2 Construction’s personnel. Over the ensuing 20 months, he worked alongside Canadian Forestry Corps personnel in the Jura District of France. During that time, David received a 14-day leave to Paris in February 1918 and was briefly hospitalized for treatment of indigestion in June 1918.

David returned to the United Kingdom with his unit on December 14, 1918, and departed for Canada one month later. He was officially discharged from military service at Halifax, NS, on February 15, 1919, and gave his intended place of residence at Mill St., Truro, where his wife Ida resided during his time overseas.

Sometime after returning to civilian life, David relocated to Saint John, NB, where the 1921 census listed him as a “lodger” in home of Nettie Johnson. Ida later followed him to the city, where she passed away on March 3, 1937. Several years after Ida’s passing, David married Rita Mae Berryman, daughter of Henry Berryman and Minnie Jarvis, Yarmouth, NS, in a ceremony held at Calvary United Baptist Church, Saint John, NB, on May 18, 1946.

David George Borden passed away Saint John General Hospital, NB, on June 7, 1958. According to his death certificate, he had been employed as a “fireman” at the Saint John Armouries until 1954. He was laid to rest in Cedar Hill Cemetery Extension, Saint John. NB. 

Pte. David Borden's Grave Marker

A special thanks to Candace McGuire and the staff of Cedar Hill Cemetery Extension, Saint John, NB, for providing a photograph of David Borden's grave marker.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

No. 2 Construction Battalion—An Overview

Note: The content below is a blend of two previous posts on this blog—African Canadians and the Canadian Expeditionary Force (January 2014) and Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris—A No. 2 Construction Battalion Soldier's Story (January 2014). This post was last updated on May 19, 2021.

Background—African Canadians and the Canadian Expeditionary Force

Following the outbreak of the First World War, Canadians from many racial and ethnic backgrounds were eager to serve with the newly created Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF).  Unfortunately, some groups received a less than enthusiastic response at recruitment offices.  Canadians of Native, Japanese and African ancestry in particular encountered indifference, resistance and outright rejection when they attempted to enlist for overseas service.

Considering their record of previous military service with British military units, it is not surprising that African Canadians sought to enlist with the CEF after the outbreak of the First World War. While a handful succeeded in joining the First Canadian Contingent battalions that departed for England in September 1914, the vast majority were rejected due to their racial background.

To their credit, African Canadian communities and leaders across the country protested throughout the first year of the war. Their complaints largely fell on deaf ears until a November 1915 incident in New Brunswick provoked considerable backlash. A group of 25 Black volunteers who had persistently attempted to enlist throughout the year were turned away when they reported for service with the 104th Battalion at Sussex, New Brunswick.

In the aftermath of the incident, the unit's Officer Commanding (OC), Lieutenant-Colonel Beverley Robinson Armstrong, wrote to military officials, asking if consideration was being given to the formation of a “black battalion” anywhere in Canada. Simultaneously, Minister of Militia Sir Sam Hughes responded to correspondence received from John T. Richards of Saint John, NB, in relation to the Sussex incident.

The content of the Minister's letter was both curious and contradictory. Hughes stated that he had issued instructions that any African Canadian who met the CEF's physical requirements should be permitted to enlist in any battalion, a policy that was clearly not being followed. Subsequent to Hughes' correspondence, Adjutant-General William Egerton Hodgins wrote to the General Officer, Military District 6, Halifax, NS, on November 29, 1915, stating that the Minister had issued instructions that "the coloured men are to be permitted to enlist in any battalion.”

Despite such explicit statements from both civilian and military authorities, OCs and recruitment officers continued to reject Black volunteers, and their superiors, not wishing to overrule their judgment, declined to intervene. A similar incident in Ontario eventually brought matters to a head, forcing Canadian government officials to finally resolve the blatant contradiction between national policy and local practice.

In November 1915, J. R. B. Whitney, publisher of the Canadian Observer, a prominent African Canadian newspaper, offered to recruit a “Black” Ontario platoon of 150 men for service with a CEF battalion. When Minister Hughes replied that there was nothing to prevent him from doing so, Whitney raised the required number of volunteers, only to be told in March 1916 that no OC was willing to accept such a platoon.

The following month, Whitney once again contacted Minister Hughes, seeking an explanation for this rejection and requesting his platoon's accommodation within an existing battalion. The military's failure to meet his request represented tacit acknowledgement that discriminatory practices at the local level, not official policy at Ottawa, determined the fate of African Canadians wishing to serve with the CEF.

The availability and suitability of African Canadians for military service was readily apparent to some individuals within the military. Reverend Joseph Freeman Tupper, an Honorary Captain and Chaplain who enlisted with the 193rd Battalion on April 1, 1916, wrote to Minister of Militia Hughes, volunteering to raise an “integrated” battalion after local recruiters turned away more than 100 African Canadians. His offer received no serious consideration.

By mid-1916, events occurring in the larger context of the war eventually produced a resolution of sorts to the issue of African Canadian military service. Rising casualty figures overseas, combined with declining enlistment numbers at home, created a significant problem for the CEF—for the first time since the war's outbreak, it faced the prospect of declined numbers of men in uniform.

At the same time, there was increasing support amongst military commanders in Ottawa for the formation of a separate Black unit of some kind.  Unwilling to over-rule local COs who consistently refused to accept Black recruits, such action was perceived as the only acceptable solution, albeit not an ideal one.

In April 1916, after 18 months of discussion, contradiction and lack of action, Major-General Sir Willoughby Garnons Gwatkin, Chief of the Canadian Militia's General Staff, recommended that the “practice” of allowing individual Blacks to enlist in “white” battalions at the discretion of individual OCs should continue. He further suggested that African Canadians form one or more labour battalions for overseas service.

Gwatkin's memo became the basis for the CEF's recruitment policy with regard to African Canadians for the remainder of the war, and prompted the formation of a separate Black battalion.  On May 11, 1916, British authorities indicated their willingness to accept an African Canadian labour unit. Canadian military authorities quickly announced the formation of No. 2 Construction Battalion at Pictou, Nova Scotia on July 5, 1916. Granted official permission to recruit its personnel across the entire country, the unit provided the first official opportunity for African Canadians to serve overseas with the CEF.

No. 2 Construction Battalion—Organization & Recruitment

While its formation was a victory of sorts for the African Canadian community, there were significant elements of inequity in its structure. For example, all of its officers but one—Honorary Chaplain, Rev. William A. White of Truro, NS—were Caucasian, and infantry units remained virtually closed to African Canadian recruits throughout the remainder of the war, with only a handful of exceptions.

By coincidence, the unit organized in a barracks on the Pictou waterfront recently occupied by a Company of the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles). The Truro-based unit was one of the few to accept African Nova Scotians into its ranks. At least 16 enlisted with the 106th and were transferred to active front-line infantry battalions when the unit was disbanded shortly after arriving in the United Kingdom. These men, however, remained the exception to the rule throughout the war.

Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Hugh Sutherland, a native of River John, NS, who had initially enlisted with the 193rd Battalion, was appointed the unit's OC. The remaining officers were drawn from across Canada and the United Kingdom, eight of whom were Nova Scotians. While organizers hoped to enlist a full complement of 1,049 men all ranks, initial response was disappointing. Whether discouraged by the CEF's previous discriminatory practices or dismayed at the prospects of serving in a segregated labour unit, young African Canadian men did not rush to enlist. By August 19, Lt.-Col. Sutherland reported a total of only 180 recruits at the battalion's Water Street barracks.

On September 9, in an effort to stimulate recruitment, No. 2 Construction relocated to Truro, a community with a sizeable African Nova Scotian population. The location was also closer to the Halifax area's large African Nova Scotian population. Lt.-Col. Sutherland laid out plans to obtain half of the unit's personnel from the Maritimes, an additional Company from Ontario and a fourth from Western Canada. In the end, 500 of the battalion's total enlistments came from Nova Scotia, 24 of whom were born or lived in Guysborough County. New Brunswick contributed 33 recruits, 11 of whom were part of a group of 20 black recruits rejected by the 64th Infantry Battalion in late 1915.

No. 2 Construction Battalion band & recruits, Windsor, ON

While the move to a more central location increased the provincial response, results from the remainder of the country were disappointing.  A total of 72 recruits from Ontario and six from Quebec enlisted for service, but appeals in Western Canada, where federal immigration policy blatantly discouraged African Canadian settlement, produced only 20 recruits.

By December 1916, total numbers stood at 575 all ranks, while a campaign launched in the United States during the winter of 1916-17 produced an additional 165 recruits. That same month, No. 2 Construction Battalion received word from military authorities in Ottawa that the unit was required overseas as soon as possible. Lt. Col. Sutherland replied that as full strength had not yet been reached, he wished to delay its departure for several months, hoping to increase the unit's numbers.

During the winter of 1916-17, Canadian government officials received an urgent request for steel rails required in France. In response, a party of 250 No. 2 Construction Battalion men were dispatched to load rails at Grand Trunk sidings in northern New Brunswick in early 1917. Completing the task in mid-winter conditions took a toll on the men's health. In fact, an outbreak of pneumonia among its soldiers claimed two lives.

Pte. Edwin Lionel Hay, a native of Port of Spain, Trinidad, was working as a mechanic in Sydney, NS, at the time of No. 2 Construction Battalion's formation, and enlisted with the unit at New Glasgow, NS, on July 25, 1916. Edwin came down with what first appeared to be a cold on January 29, 1917, but his condition quickly worsened. Admitted to St. Basile's Civic Hospital, Edmundston, NB, two days later, he passed away from pneumonia on February 12, 1917.

The second fatality was Pte. William John "Willy John" Jackson, a native of Antigonish, NS. Admitted to St. Basil’s Civic Hospital on the day prior to Pte. Hay's death, Willy John passed away from pneumonia on February 19, 1917. His remains were transported to Antigonish, where he was laid to rest in St. Ninian Parish Cemetery.

On March 17, 1917, No. 2 Construction Battalion officially mobilized at Truro with a complement of 19 officers and 605 other ranks (OR). Several days later, the battalion travelled to Halifax, where personnel boarded the SS Southland and departed for England on March 28. Upon landing at Liverpool, UK, on April 7, the men travelled to the CEF military camp at Bramshott. As it was significantly below full battalion strength of 1,049, No. 2 Construction was officially re-designated a Company shortly after its arrival, and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC) for service in France.

No. 2 Construction Company—Service In France

On May 17, 1917, a total of 495 No. 2 Construction Company OR departed for France, accompanied by 11 officers. Upon crossing the English Channel, the men made their way to the Jura District of eastern France, near the Swiss border, where they were attached to No. 5 District, CFC. Its Headquarters' May 20th diary entry recorded the arrival of the Company, "composed of Canadian Negroes… despatched [sic] as a labour unit... and... employed on the various railway and other construction work."

CFC's Jura operations involved all aspects of forestry production. Teams of men worked in the forests year-round, selecting and harvesting mature timber that was transported by horse and wagon or narrow-gauge railway to CFC-operated mills. The men produced lumber for various purposes: ties for standard and narrow-gauge railways, pickets, beams and boards for military camp and trench construction. No. 2 Construction personnel worked in all aspects of the operation—assisting with mill operation, constructing a narrow-gauge railway to move logs to the mill yard, transporting logs to mills, milling timber, and loading finished products onto rail cars at a nearby siding.

No. 2 Construction personnel at work in France

While the majority of its personnel remained in the Jura District during No. 2 Construction's time in France, two smaller groups were dispatched to other locations for specific reasons. On November 12, 1917, one officer and 50 OR "proceeded to Cartigny as a detachment to assist No. 37 Company [CFC] in their work." The enlisted men had one thing in common—their service files record numerous minor disciplinary infractions.

CFC camps, like their civilian counterparts, were "rough and tumble" operations. The men worked a six-day schedule, with Sundays designated as a day of rest. Shifts were limited to a regular working day, leaving the men with free time in the evening hours. The proximity of French towns and villages, with their "estaminets"—small cafés that sold alcoholic beverages—offered a welcome diversion from a hard day's work, but often resulted  in mischief. In other instances, some of the men failed to adjust to the military's "discipline" expectations.

Disciplinary problems were not limited to No. 2's personnel. Every CFC unit's war diary is replete with references to disciplinary proceedings and courts martial addressing a wide variety of incidents, from violations of military rules and misbehaviour in camp to offences committed in nearby communities. In September 1917, CFC Headquarters decided to address the issue by sending the "repeat offenders" within No. 2 Construction's ranks closer to the front lines, where labour units were in demand. It was hoped that the change of scene would result in greater conformity to the military's expectations.

Upon arriving at Cartigny, the men were attached to No. 37 Company CFC and worked alongside its men in carrying out the operation's routine tasks—cutting and transporting logs, and repairing the roads used for transporting harvested timber to the mill, tasks virtually identical to their Jura routine.

When German forces launched a major offensive against Allied positions on March 21, 1918, No. 37 Company and its No. 2 Construction detail found themselves in a precarious situation. German artillery shells struck the area around the camp, forcing personnel to abandon the area. While lumber, machinery and the mill were left intact, important machinery parts were buried and stores removed.

Personnel marched out of camp at 5:00 pm March 23, with German forces less than two kilometres away, and made their way to a CFC camp at Wail, where work resumed the following day. No. 2 Construction personnel remained with No. 37 Company until early December, when they received orders to rejoin their comrades at Étaples, France, before proceeding to the United Kingdom.

A second group of No. 2 Construction men, consisting of 180 OR and two officers was assigned to Central Group CFC, No. 1 District, Alençon, on December 12, 1917, a move intended to address a different issue, at least in the minds the Jura District's medical officer and CFC Headquarters in France. 

A considerable number of No. 2 Construction's personnel were from the Caribbean Islands or parts of the southern United States. With a cold winter in the mountainous Jura region was fast approaching, the officer was concerned that men accustomed to a much warmer climate might develop health issues that would limit their ability to work and possibly require hospitalization, and notified CFC Headquarters of his concerns.

In response, CFC HQ agreed to re-assign these men to an area of France where winter conditions were much less harsh. The irony of this decision was that, by the time the selected personnel departed for Alencon, the rainy, damp November weather had given way to a cold, dry December, and the men exhibited no difficulty in adjusting to the changes. However, the decision had already been made and neither the medical officer nor CFC HQ wished to request a reversal, fearing embarrassment at their poor judgment.

Further insult occurred when the train assigned to transport the group to their new location. In the words of No. 2 Construction's war diary, "train accommodation [was] very poor, as all the men [were] placed in open box cars and exposed to cold weather. The reason given for moving these men away, viz. that the climatic conditions at La Joux are too severe for the coloured men[,] do not correspond with the train furnished."

The Alençon operation consisted of nine CFC companies logging the forests of Normandy. Upon arrival, No. 2 Construction personnel were attached to No. 54 Company, CFC. On March 25, 1918, the "entire district was put on production of pickets" for use at the front. Its operations involved several diverse groups. In addition to white CFC and black No. 2 Construction personnel, several parties of Russian reinforcements and German prisoners of war worked in its camps throughout the year.

In early April 1918, CFC Alençon personnel received orders to conduct infantry training when not working. The following month, specific orders required each Company to devote two half-days a week and three hours each Sunday morning to "Military Training.” Considering the discriminatory practices followed by most CEF infantry battalions, it is doubtful that this directive was applied to No. 2 Construction personnel.

Before the end of the year, a small number of CFC men were selected for service at the front. On October 4, 1918, as the Canadian Corps spearheaded the final weeks of a three-month offensive against German positions in northern France and Belgium, a draft of six non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 150 OR left Alençon for the Canadian Corps Reinforcement Camp. Given the timing of their departure, these men likely saw service at the front before the war's conclusion.

The men of No. 2 Construction Company continued to work in the forests and lumber camps of Jura, Wail and Alencon throughout 1918. During the late summer and early autumn of 1918, CFC men across France were granted leaves in small numbers. In this instance, No. 2 Construction personnel, having worked “overseas” for 15 months, received the same privileges as their CFC comrades. Upon receiving news of the November 11, 1918 Armistice, No. 1 District CFC HQ's war diary reported that "a general holiday was to be observed throughout the District on November 12 for the purpose of celebrating the temporary cessation of hostilities.”

As fighting came to an end, production at CFC's various lumber camps ceased and personnel gradually returned to England. No. 2 Construction Company’s men were the first to depart, congregating at Étaples, France, in early December and crossing the English Channel to the United Kingdom in one group on December 14, 1918.

Throughout their time in uniform, No. 2 Construction's personnel experienced racist attitudes and discriminatory practices in a variety of ways. The most obvious example of discrimination was their exclusion from service with active combat units at the front. Racist attitudes were also common. Following its establishment, representatives of No. 1 Construction Battalion, an all-white labour unit, voiced their disapproval of the unit's name. When officials arranged for overseas transportation aboard SS Southland, combat units scheduled to sail aboard the same vessel protested No. 2 Construction's presence. In both case, Canadian military authorities ignored the objections.

Discriminatory practices continued during their overseas service. For example, while No. 2 Construction personnel at Jura, France, were permitted to participate in a July 1, 1918 "Dominion Day" sports competition, the men at Alençon were denied the same privilege. This inconsistency once again reflected the choices made by local OCs, practices that military authorities continued to ignore throughout the war.

Perhaps the most serious overseas incident is said to have occurred at Kinmel Park, Wales, UK, where No. 2 Construction's personnel were processed prior to their return to Canada. While undergoing the routine medical and dental examinations that were part of the discharge process, the men found themselves in a camp with personnel from numerous other units that were predominantly if not exclusively white. In such an environment, it is not surprising that friction eventually occurred.

Two No. 2 Construction veterans later recalled one particular incident. Private Benjamin Elms, a native of Monastery, Antigonish County, described a disturbance that broke out between No. 2 Construction personnel and a group of CEF infantrymen when "a white soldier made a racial remark." After No. 2 Construction's Sgt. Edward Sealy, a native of Barbados, ordered the man arrested, "his buddies came to release him and all hell broke loose."

Pte. Robert Shepard of Mulgrave, another No. 2 Construction veteran, had a slightly different recollection of the incident: "No. 2 was on parade under the direction of Sergeant Sealy. A sergeant-major from another unit ignored orders from Sergeant Sealy and interfered with the line of march. When he was arrested, some of his comrades attempted to remove him from the guard house. A riot broke out and a number of soldiers ended up in hospital."

Other reports present different accounts of the incident. One suggests that a white unit stepped in front of No. 2 Construction soldiers waiting their turn in the bath line. A second claims that white Canadian officers refused to return the salute of parading No. 2 Construction men during a regimental parade. Unfortunately, Sgt. Sealy's personnel file makes no reference to any incident.

Whatever may have transpired, the accounts may explain why military authorities seemed intent on quickly returning No. 2 Construction to Canada, in comparison to other CEF units. In general, the "rule of thumb" following the November 11, 1918 Armistice was to send the units that had served overseas for the longest period of time back to Canada first. That was not the case For No. 2 Construction's personnel, who left the continent one month after the Armistice, while other CFC units remained in France for weeks or months into the New Year.

Similarly, once the unit arrived in the United Kingdom in mid-December 1918, its soldiers were quickly processed and departed for Canada aboard the Empress of Britain on January 12, 1919. The vessel docked at Halifax 10 days later and the men disembarked, having spent almost 22 months overseas. Several more weeks of processing were required before No. 2 Construction’s personnel were formally discharged from military service in early February 1919.


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