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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.


African Canadian Community - World War I. Windsor Mosaic. Available online.

Black Canadians in Uniform - A Proud Tradition. Veterans Affairs Canada. Available online.

Joost, Mathias. "No. 2 Construction Battalion: The Operational History." Canadian Military Journal, Col. 16, No. 3, Summer 2016. Available online.

List of Court-Martialed No. 2 Construction Battalion Servicemen Released. Boxscore News.  Available online.

No. 2 Construction Battalion. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Available online.

Regimental Record of Sgt. Edward Sealy, number 931011. Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 8751 - 48.  Available online.

Ruck, Calvin W.. The Black Battalion 1916 - 1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret.  Halifax, NS: Nimbus Publishing Ltd., 1987.

War Diary of Canadian Construction Company (Coloured), 1917/05/17 - 1918/10/31. RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5015, Reel T-10866-10867, File: 747. Available online at Library & Archives Canada.

War Diary of Canadian Forestry Corps - Headquarters - Central Group, 1916/11/30 - 1919/02/28. RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5016, Reel T-10867-10868, File: 751. Available online at Library & Archives Canada.

War Diary of Canadian Forestry Corps - Headquarters - Jura Group, 1917/11/26 - 1919/03/29.  RG9, Militia & Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5016, Reel T-10868, File: 751. Available online at Library & Archives Canada.

Friday, 5 June 2020

Corporal Frederick Milburne Rhodes—A Widower’s Story

Date of Birth: April 24, 1869*

Place of Birth: Port Burwell, Ontario*

Mother: Rachel Henney   

Father: Robert Rhodes

Occupation: Prospector, Farmer & Lumberman

Marital Status: Widowed

Enlistments: July 3, 1916 at Haileybury, ON; February 16, 1917 at Iroquois Falls, ON

Regimental #: 649480 (first attestation); 2250034 (second attestation)

Rank: Corporal

Force: Canadian Forestry Corps

Units: 159th Battalion (1st Algonquins); No. 105 Company, Canadian Forestry Corps

Service: England

Next of Kin: Madeleine Alberta Rhodes, New Liskeard, ON (daughter)

*: Date of birth based on 1881 and 1901 Canadian census records. Place of birth obtained from a document in Fred’s service file. The spelling of his middle name varies significantly from one source to another. For the purpose of this document. “Milburne” is used, as it is most frequently used. An apparent discrepancy between Fred’s marriage date and the birth of his eldest son could not be resolved.


Frederick Milburne “Fred” Rhodes was born at Port Burwell, near Tillsonburg, Ontario, on April 14, 1869, the second of Robert and Rachel (Henney) Rhodes’ nine children. Robert, a native of Michigan, USA, and Rachel, an Ontario native, were married in Norfolk County, Ontario, on February 12, 1866. The couple resided in the Tillsonburg area until some time prior to the 1891 Canadian census, by which time the family had relocated to the Maclean Township district of Ontario.

Cpl. Frederick Milburne Rhodes
According to existing provincial records, Fred married Margaret McReynolds, daughter of Ronald and Elizabeth Ann (Reynolds) McReynolds, at McLean, Ontario, on September 19, 1892. The couple raised three children in their home—Middleton Milburne, born at Huntsville, ON, on January 8, 1888*; Robert Roland, born at Baysville, Muskoka, ON, on July 20, 1893; and Madeleine Alberta, born at Bethune, Muskoka, ON, on November 12, 1901.

The family was residing in Sinclair Township, Muskoka, Ontario, at the time of the 1901 Canadian census, but had relocated to Temiskaming, Ontario, by 1911. While census records list Fred’s occupation as farmer, his later military attestations listed previous employment as “prospector” and “lumberman,” suggesting that he supported his family by working at several occupations common to the area. Family sources indicate that Fred worked for a time in the hard rock mines, an environment that may have contributed to a significant hearing loss later noted in his military file.

Tragedy struck the Rhodes family on September 15, 1914, when 50-year-old Margaret passed away at Lady Minto Hospital, New Liskeard, ON, the result of complications from a stroke. Within months of her passing, the events of a distant war also began to impact the surviving family members. On November 12, 1914, Middleton enlisted for overseas service with the 20th Battalion at Toronto, ON. His military service was short-lived, as he was “struck off strength” one month later when he refused “to be inoculated.” Middleton returned home, married Fanny Harriet Evans at Timiskaming, ON, on April 24, 1915, and remained a civilian for the war’s duration.

Within days of Middleton’s discharge, his younger brother, Robert, attested with the 159th Battalion (1st Algonquins) at New Liskeard, ON. His younger son’s enlistment appears to have piqued Fred’s interest in “doing his bit.” On July 3, 1916, Fred joined Robert’s unit at Haileybury, Temiskaming Shores, ON. Based on the information on his attestation, Fred was no stranger to military routine. He claimed 12 years’ service with the 35th Regiment, Canadian militia, and was an active member of the 97th Regiment at the time of his first enlistment.

Left to Right: Robert, Madeleine & Fred Rhodes
To enhance his chances of overseas service, Fred misreported his birth year as 1872. In the end, age was not a determining factor in his eventual fate. Fred was discharged from the 159th’s ranks at Camp Borden, ON, on September 19, 1916, a note in his service file describing him as “medically unfit—Arterio Sclerosis.” Further details listed in his medical records describe a “[moderately] pronoted [sic] right foot,” and indicated that Fred’s “right leg [was] noticeably smaller than [the] left.”

While Robert departed for the United Kingdom with the 159th on October 31, 1916, Fred spent the winter months at New Liskeard. The arrival of the New Year presented a second opportunity for enlistment, when military authorities launched a nation-wide recruitment campaign for volunteers interested in overseas service with the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC). Fred attested with CFC Reinforcements at Iroquois Falls, ON, on February 16, 1917, once again misreporting his age by three years. On this occasion, the only medical item recorded in his service file is a comment on the back of Fred’s attestation that reads, “Hearing defective.”

Fred left his young daughter Madeleine in the care of “friend” John Atwell Hough, Matheson, ON, whom he named as her guardian. He also listed Madeleine as his next of kin and the sole inheritor in his military will. On June 23, 1917, Fred sailed for the United Kingdom aboard SS Justicia and arrived overseas after a 13-day journey.  Initially assigned to No. 114 Company, CFC, at Eartham, Sussex, on August 22, 1917, Fred spent two months with the unit before a draft of its personnel waw transferred to the newly formed No. 105 Company, CFC, on October 22, 1917, the day of its official formation.

No. 105 Company’s personnel initially commenced operations alongside No. 114 Company personnel at Esher and Eartham, Sussex, but was transferred to the Stevenstone Estate, Torrington, North Devon, in late November 1917. The location was “very hilly,” but a small stream provided sufficient water supply. The nearest railway station was more than three miles distant, along a route passing through the town of Torrington. A lack of onsite facilities initially required No. 105’s personnel to be placed in billets around the town while a camp was constructed.

The available forest consisted mainly of Scotch pine, spruce and larch. The Company’s November 1917 diary described the resource as “very scattered and difficult to operate. The trees are small and straight[,] with limbs to the ground.” The fact that the wooded area was long and narrow meant that the furthest area was more than two miles from the Company’s proposed mill location.

On November 26, 1917, Fred was promoted to the rank of Acting Corporal with pay, an acknowledgment of his leadership, age and experience. Meanwhile, No. 105 Company’s progress during December 1917 was “only fair,” hampered by the limits of local geography, poor railway services, a small number of men and horses, and lack of mechanical transport. While camp construction proceeded and personnel managed to cut 1,400 logs, overall operations were hampered “owing to the small number of men available for this work.”

January 1918 brought “considerable rain, sleet, etc.,” further complicating operations. Lack of motor and steam transport, combined with poor ground conditions, “somewhat hampered” the movement of harvested logs to the mill site. “Fair progress” was made, owing largely to the arrival of reinforcements that raised the Company’s complement to three Officers and 182 “other ranks” (OR) by month’s end. While personnel remained in billets, considerable headway was made in clearing the camp site.

Harvesting, however, was “only fair as we have few men who are experienced in bush work.” Crews produced a total of 5,000 logs and 28,000 lineal feet of “pit wood” [roof props for mines], while work commenced on construction of a small gauge railway to haul logs from the wooded area to the mill. The line was blazed and marked, but no rails laid due to a lack of spikes.

The following month, an outbreak of measles in the town resulted in six men being placed in quarantine. Meanwhile, eight gangs commenced work in the forest operation, but three were later reassigned to camp construction. A total of 7,500 logs and 5,000 pieces of pit wood were harvested. Lack of road transport limited the hauling of logs to the mill site. A 500-yard stretch of of railway track was graded and laid, while the mill cut its first log on February 2 and commenced regular operations 10 days later. By month’s end, it was producing a daily average of 8,500 FBM [foot board measure] of lumber.

While shipping commenced on February 25, the lack of a proper road from the loading platform to the main road hindered operations. The arrival of two gasoline-powered tractors and four wagons dramatically improved the Company’s ability to move harvested logs to the mill and reduced its dependency on horse-drawn wagons.

On March 2, 1918, rank and file personnel moved into newly constructed huts at the camp site, while their Officers occupied their quarters one week later. Plank walkways connected sleeping quarters, kitchen and mess room buildings, allowing for easy movement around the muddy camp grounds. Meanwhile, bush operations produced 8,500 logs, 15,000 telephone poles, and 6,000 lineal feet of pit wood. A stockpile of 15,000 logs at the harvesting area awaited transport to the mill.

A lack of “fish plates” [a flat piece of metal used to join one rail to another] prevented further railway construction and forced the Company to rely entirely on its two tractors to move logs to the mill site. Meanwhile, mill production increased to an average of 16,000 FBM daily. Two Mack lorries made daily trips to the railway head with lumber shipments as road conditions improved significantly toward month’s end. The Company reported its first “casualties” since arriving in the Torrington area, both work-related incidents. One OR sustained injuries to his left hand serious enough to require amputation at the wrist, while a second OR lost three fingers on his left hand.

By the end of April 1918, the camp site had been considerable improved with the installation of surface water drains and liberal use of sawdust in damp areas. The light railway was still incomplete, but the required fish plates had arrived and completion was anticipated in the near future. A total of 10,000 logs were harvested, while 20,000 linear feet of pit wood was produced. A stockpile of 15,000 logs still remained at the harvesting area, but the imminent completion of the rail line would increase transport capacity to the mill site. Daily average production increased once more, reaching 18,000 FBM.

With the arrival of spring weather, the Company implemented measures for fire protection at the mill and various camp buildings. While harvesting and milling operations proceeded satisfactorily, lack of suitable load facilities and rail cars hampered the ability to export the mill’s output. A large garden planted earlier in the spring as a food source was beginning to show results, but the monthly report lamented that “the rabbits and pigeons are very destructive and devour mostly all of the green and soft plants.”

Throughout this time, Fred worked at No. 105 Company’s Torrington camp without incident. During the winter of 1917-18—possibly while billeted in the town—he made the acquaintance of a local woman and the couple planned to marry in early June 1918. Fred also found a few minutes to write a short note, dated May 1918, to two unidentified siblings in Canada:

“Dear Brother and Sister: I received your most welcome letter and am glad to tell you I am much better now. We are having much better weather, nice and warm now. I hope it will stay like it as I cannot stand the damp weather in this county. Glad to hear that Father is well, give my best love to him and hope to see him again soon. I do wish the war would soon end so that we can get home again by the time you receive this letter. I guess I shall be married again. I don’t think I have any more news to tell this time so will close with best love to all from your loving brother Fred.”

Tragically, neither Fred’s nuptial plans nor his homecoming came to fruition. On Friday, May 31, 1918, Fred was working in No. 105 Company’s mill yard at Torrington, North Devon. Around 1:20 pm, he commenced “an operation of splitting logs by planting powder,” a standard procedure for CFC personnel. A document in Fred’s service file, written by his OC, Captain Samuel Lester Willman, and dated June 1, 1918, described the process and subsequent events:

“Four two-inch holes were bored to the centre of a large log and these holes were filled to within 4 inches of the top with blasting powder. Bickford No. 11 Safety Fuse was inserted and holes were plugged by means of four 4 inch wooden plugs, fuses were cut at different lengths, so as to cause simultaneous explosion…. Corporal Rhodes… lit the short fuse first and although warned that he had committed an error, and told to run, he continued until all four fuses were lit. He then came back towards the first fuse, and when immediately opposite same and about five feet from the log, the explosion of the first charge took place. A large piece of the log, weighing 114 lbs. which was thrown by the force of the explosion, hit Corporal Rhodes on [the] right side of his head and right shoulder. He was killed instantly, the base of his skull being fractured[,] also his right arm. It is considered that the fuse inserted in the first charge was of sufficient length but must have been defective, otherwise the explosion would not have taken place for another 15 seconds.”

Captain Willman concluded with the following statement: “I personally supervised this operation and warned the deceased… to run as soon as I saw him light the short fuse.” Considering the medical notes in Fred’s service record, it is possible that his defective hearing meant that he did not hear the warning. Corporal Fred Rhodes was “buried with Military honours” in Great Torrington Cemetery, Devon, UK, on Sunday, June 2, 1918.

Cpl. Frederick Rhodes' headstone, Great Torrington Cemetery

Fred’s son, Robert, served overseas for the duration of the war. Several months after his arrival in the United Kingdom, he was transferred to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles (CMR) in mid-June 1917 and joined the unit in the field on September 30, 1917. Robert was wounded in the right shoulder at Passchendaele, Belgium, on October 28, 1917, and spent three months under medical care before rejoining 4th CMR’s ranks on February 8, 1918. He served at the front without incident for the remainder of the war and returned to Canada aboard SS Carmania in mid-March 1919.

On July 7, 1919, Robert married Annie Pearl Bilow, daughter of James and Ellen (Strader) Bilow, in a ceremony held at New Liskeard, Timiskaming, ON. Almost exactly one year later—July 22, 1920—Robert’s sister, Madeleine, married his wife’s brother, William Earl Bilow, at the same location. While William had served on the Western Front with the 15th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), his time in uniform was plagued by periods of poor health. On September 26, 1916, he was wounded by shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell during fighting at the Somme, France. Buried in the resulting debris, William survived the ordeal but suffered from “shell shock” after the experience and was eventually deemed “unfit for further services in France” in September 1918.

William returned to Canada in mid-April 1919. Sometime after his July 1920 marriage, he and Madeleine relocated to Port Alberni, British Columbia, where Madeleine passed away on July 30, 1931, at 29 years of age. Middleton Rhodes also made his way out west after the war, passing away at Surrey, BC, on April 24, 1962.

Special thanks to Don Rhodes, Liskeard, ON, who provided Rhodes family photos for this post. I am also indebted to Paul Martin, Torrington, UK, who first brought Fred's story to my attention and provided a photograph of Fred's headstone.