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Thursday, 16 January 2014

African Canadians and the Canadian Expeditionary Force

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

The rejection of African Canadians is particularly disturbing in light of their lengthy tradition of loyal service with British and Canadian military forces.  During the American Revolutionary War, Britain encouraged African American slaves to flee their 'masters' and enlist in the British Army.  A considerable number did so, while many others supported the British cause as labourers.

One particular Corps, the Black Pioneers, served throughout the Revolutionary War.  Some of its members followed the United Empire Loyalists to new homes in the Maritime colonies and Upper Canada after 1783.  Virtually every Loyalist unit contained African Americans, some of whom relocated to such Maritime locations as Birchtown, Preston, Digby and Saint John at war's end.

African Canadians also participated in military events that are part of Canada's colonial history.  During the War of 1812, for example, Blacks served in local militias.  The 'Company of Colored Men', a volunteer unit organized in the Niagara region and commanded by a 'white' officer, helped defend Upper Canada from invading American forces.  Black soldiers also served alongside Canadians of Scottish, English and French ancestry.  Some were former American slaves who had escaped to British North America via the 'Underground Railroad'.

Several Upper Canadian towns organized Black militia units after the outbreak of the Upper Canadian Rebellion in December 1837.  Five companies, once again led by 'white' officers, supported the colonial government's efforts to crush the local uprising led by William Lyon Mackenzie.

Canada Post stamp in honour of William Hall, VC.
 African Canadians also served in military conflicts abroad, on occasion with great distinction.  The first individual from a British colony to receive the Victoria Cross was William Edward Hall, son of a freed American slave and a native of Horton Bluffs, Nova Scotia.  Hall enlisted with the British Navy as a teenager and saw action in the Crimean War (1853-56).  He earned the Empire's most prestigious bravery award for his actions in rescuing British soldiers and civilians being held hostage at Lucknow during the 'Indian Mutiny' of 1857.

During the American Civil War, a considerable number of Black British North Americans crossed the border to serve with the Union Army during its four-year struggle against the Confederate States of America.  At the turn of the last century, a small number of African Canadians enlisted with the Canadian Contingent in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902). 

Considering this record of service, it is not surprising that African Canadians were eager to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) after the outbreak of the First World War.  The response they received from recruiting officers, however, was disappointing to say the least.  While a handful of African Canadians succeeded in joining the First Canadian Contingent battalions that departed for England in September 1914, the vast majority was rejected due to their racial background.

To their credit, African Canadian communities and leaders across the country refused to accept such treatment.  During the war's early months, several individuals challenged the CEF's recruitment practices.  On November 6, 1914, Arthur Alexander, a prominent African Canadian living in Buxton, Ontario, wrote directly to Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, asking why Blacks were not permitted to enlist for overseas service.  Government officials responded that the selection of soldiers was entirely up to each battalion's Commanding Officer (CO) and military Headquarters did not wish to interfere with such decisions.

Objections to this practice increased as the war entered its second year.  On September 7, 1915, George Morton, a resident of Hamilton, Ontario, questioned the rejection of a number of 'coloured men' who attempted to enlist with a local battalion.  In his reply, Acting Adjutant-General, Brigadier-General W. E. Hodgins, stated that nothing in 'existing regulations' prohibited African Canadians from service with CEF units.  However, he pointed out that 'final approval' for such requests rested with each unit's CO, effectively ensuring that the majority of Black volunteers would continue to meet with rejection.

New Brunswick members of No. 2 Construction Battalion Band (Ruck, p. 21).
A November 1915 incident provoked considerable discussion of CEF recruitment policy and practices with regard to African Canadians.  Twenty-five 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 this incident, the unit's CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Beverley Robinson Armstrong, wrote to military authorities, asking if consideration was being given to the formation of a "Black' battalion anywhere in Canada.

Simultaneously, Minister of Militia Hughes responded to correspondence received from John T. Richards of Saint John, New Brunswick in relation to the Sussex incident.  The letter's content is 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 Hodgins wrote to the General Officer, 6th Division, Halifax, 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 these explicit statements from both civilian and military authorities, CO's and recruitment officers continued to reject Black volunteers.

A similar incident in Ontario eventually brought matters to a head, forcing government officials to 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 CO was willing to accept such a unit.

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 in Ottawa, determined the fate of African Canadians wishing to serve with the CEF.

African Canadian soldiers loading ammunition on a tramway (Canadian War Museum).
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 or response.

By mid-1916, events occurring in the larger context of war eventually produced a 'resolution' 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 CO's 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 eighteen 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 CO's 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.  The unit provided the first 'official' opportunity for African Canadians to serve overseas.

African Canadian soldiers washing laundry (Canadian War Museum).
Over 600 men from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Western Canada and parts of the United States served with the No. 2 Construction Battalion for the duration of the war.  While its formation was a victory of sorts, there were significant elements of inequity in its formation, as all of its officers but one - Honorary Chaplain, Rev. William A. White of Truro, NS - were Caucasian, and infantry units by and large remained closed to African Canadian recruits.

There were exceptions to this practice.  While small in scale, one such case was the 106th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles), a unit organized in Truro, Nova Scotia, with companies recruited in nearby Pictou and Springhill.  As all three communities possessed sizeable numbers of African Canadians, its recruiters soon faced the 'dilemma' posed by 'Black volunteers'.

The unit's initial CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W. H. Allen, was forced to confront the issue when Samuel Reese, a native of British Guiana living in Nova Scotia at the time, attempted to enlist with the 106th after being rejected by both the Composite Battalion (Halifax Citadel) and Royal Canadian Regiment in Halifax.  Reverend William A. White, Pastor of the Zion Baptist Church, Truro, wrote to Allen in support of Reese's enlistment.

Allen indicated his willingness to accept African Nova Scotian recruits if there were sufficient numbers to form a 'Black' platoon.  Shortly after Reese's application, Allen received Minister Hughes' instructions that "there is to be no distinction of colour for enlistment".  While convinced that Blacks ought to serve in some capacity and would make 'good' soldiers, Allen was not certain that they could do so alongside 'white' soldiers.

The 106th eventually accepted a total of 16 'Black' volunteers into its ranks between December 1915 and July 1916, although the majority enlisted after the appointment of Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Innis as the unit's new CO in May 1916.  Rather than establishing a separate 'Black' platoon, the recruits were 'integrated' into the battalion's four companies.

British soldier Walter Tull became the first 'black' officer to command troops during the First World War.  Click here to read his story.
 While the 106th was disbanded shortly after reaching England, its African Nova Scotian members served in combat with various Canadian battalions in France and Belgium.  One 106th African Nova Scotian recruit, Rollie Ash of Guysborough, NS, was killed in action in France on January 16, 1917 while serving with the 26th Battalion, a New Brunswick unit.  His younger brother, Norman, a native of Antigonish, NS, fought with the same unit and was killed in action at Hill 70 on August 15, 1917.

The passage of the Military Service Act on August 29, 1917 once again created the dilemma of 'African Canadian' military service.  While official policy permitted their conscription into service, military authorities unofficially maintained the practice of racial segregation.  Upon arriving in England, many Black conscripts were placed in segregated units and assigned to 'fatigue' and labor duties, instead of military drill.  Later in 1918, the units were eventually designated as reinforcements for Nova Scotia's 85th Battalion, but the war ended before the conscripts were called to the front.

An estimated 2000 African Canadians managed to enlist with regular infantry units during the war, in addition to the 600 men who served with No. 2 Construction Battalion.  Their military service in the face of racism and systemic discrimination is testimony to their dedication and determination to serve their country in time of crisis.  It also represents a significant contribution to the tradition of African Canadian military service, one that continued throughout the military conflicts of the 20th and early 21st centuries.



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

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

Mobilization Means War!  Canada Enters the Great War.  Human Rights in Canada: A Historical Perspective.  Available online.

No. 2 Construction Battalion.   Historica Canada - Black History Canada.  Available online.

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


  1. WWII veterans Thamis Gale and Owen Rowe conducted the research that identified that approximately 2,000 Black and West Indian soldiers were soldiers in the CEF and not part of the No.02 Construction Battalion thus dispelling the "myth" that only a few members were permitted to fight.

  2. Thanks for the additional information, George. It helps add another dimension to the story of African Canadian contributions to the war effort. In searching for their work on the Internet, I found the following Facebook page:

    Interestingly, a picture of Pte. Joe Parris was posted hours after your comment!