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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris - A No. 2 Construction Battalion Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: March 20, 1899*

Place of Birth: Sand Point, Guysborough Co., NS**

Mother's Name: Ann Elizabeth 'Annie' Izzard

Father's Name: Charles Levi Parris

Date of Enlistment: July 25, 1916 at New Glasgow, NS

Regimental Number: 931017

Rank: Private

Force: Canadian Expeditionary Force (Labor Battalion)

Name of Unit: No. 2 Construction Battalion

Location of service: England & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Laborer

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: Mr. Charles Parris, Mulgrave, NS (father)

*: Date of birth taken from 1901 census.  Attestation papers list Joe's date of birth as March 21, 1897.

**: Place of birth indicated on 1924 marriage certificate.  Attestation papers list Joe's birthplace as Mulgrave, NS.

*****
 
Joseph Alexander Parris was the second of six children born to Charles and Annie Parris of Sand Point, Guysborough County.  Like many other young men of his generation, Joe was excited at the prospect of serving overseas after the outbreak of the war in Europe.  His African Nova Scotian heritage, however, presented an obstacle as the majority of infantry battalions refused to accept 'black' recruits.
Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris (center) and unidentified No. 2 Construction Battalion comrades.  (Source: Ruck)
 When the Canadian government authorized the formation of a 'black' labour battalion on July 5, 1916, Joe quickly responded, 'exaggerating' his age by two years when he enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at New Glasgow, three weeks after the unit's formation.  His older brother, William 'Bill' Winslow Parris, joined the battalion at Truro two months later.  The following spring, the brothers embarked on a journey that took them to England and the Canadian Forestry Corps' lumber camps in France.

*****
 
No. 2 Construction Battalion's formation occurred in the aftermath of considerable debate - public and private - over African Canadians' role in the war.  A dramatic contradiction existed between official government policy and local recruitment practice.  Canada's Minister of Militia, Sir Sam Hughes, clearly instructed recruitment officers that all men who met the requirements for infantry service were to be accepted, regardless of racial or ethnic background.  In practice, however, the vast majority of Commanding Officers (OCs) refused to accept 'black' recruits into their units. 

The issue came to a head in the spring of 1916, after African Canadian community leaders across the country questioned the blatant rejection of 'black' recruits.  Unwilling to overrule its OCs, the Canadian government sought a 'compromise' - but no less discriminatory - solution, authorizing the formation of a 'black' labour unit, No. 2 Construction Battalion. Established on July 5, 1916 and headquartered at Pictou, NS, it was the only Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) unit permitted to recruit across the entire country.

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, drawn from across Canada and England - a total of eight from Nova Scotia - were all 'white', with the exception of the battalion's Chaplain, Reverend William A. White.  A native of Williamsburg, Va., Rev. White earned a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity Studies from Acadia University, Wolfville, NS and accepted a ministry with Zion Baptist Church, Truro, NS.  An outspoken supporter of 'black' enlistment, Rev. White was appointed No. 2 Construction's Honorary Chaplain with the rank of Captain, thus becoming the CEF's only 'black' commissioned officer.

While organizers hoped to enlist a full complement of 1049 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, 1916, No. 2 Construction relocated to Truro, a community with a sizeable 'black' population, in an effort to stimulate recruitment.  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, 25 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. 

While the move to a more 'central' location increased provincial response, results from the remainder of the country were disappointing.  A total of 72 recruits from Ontario and 6 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', as a campaign launched in the United States during the winter of 1916-17 produced an additional 165 recruits.

No. 2 Construction Battalion personnel, November 1916.

No. 2 Construction Battalion officially mobilized at Truro on March 17, 1917 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, England on April 7, the men travelled to the CEF military camp at Bramshott.  As it was significantly below full battalion strength of 1000, No. 2 Construction was officially re-designated a 'Company' shortly after its arrival and attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (CFC).

Joe and Bill remained in England for only six weeks.  They departed for France on May 17, 1917 as part of a group of 495 No. 2 Construction Company OR, 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 No. 2 Construction 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 in addition to pickets, beams and boards for military camp and trench construction.  Joe and the men of No. 2 Construction worked in all aspects of the operation - assisting with mill and narrow-gauge railway construction, transporting logs to mills, milling timber, and shipping finished products.

While the majority of its personnel remained in the Jura District during No. 2 Construction's service in France, several smaller groups were dispatched to other locations.  On November 9, 1917, 1 officer and 50 OR proceeded to No. 39 CFC, Cartigny, near Peronne, France.  A second group consisting of 180 OR and two officers was assigned to Central Group CFC, No. 1 District on December 12, 1917.  Joe was part of the latter group, arriving at Alencon, southwest of Paris, on December 31, 1917.

The Alencon 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 soldiers, several parties of 'Russian reinforcements' and 'companies' of German prisoners of war worked in its camps throughout the year.

In early April 1918, CFC Alencon 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 not clear whether this directive 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 a major offensive against German positions in northern France - a draft of 6 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 150 OR left Alencon 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.

Meanwhile, Joe and his comrades spent the summer and autumn working in the CFC lumber camps near Alencon.  On May 25, the 'detachment' of No. 2 Construction Company men was reassigned to No. 42 Company CFC, with whom they remained for the duration of their time in France.  The District war diary reported record production in both timber tonnage and 'fbm' (foot board measure) of lumber in September and October 1918.

On at least one occasion, the No. 2 Construction Company personnel assigned to CFC's Alencon operations were victims of discriminatory treatment.  On June 30, 1918, the Headquarters War Diary reported that representatives of all Companies were invited to participate in a Sports Day at Alencon, in celebration of Dominion Day.  An estimated 25,000 spectators attended the July 1 festivities, with all proceeds - a total of 3000 francs - donated to the French Red Cross.  An event program outlined a variety of athletic, 'lumberjack' and recreational competitions, followed by an evening concert. 

Program Cover - CFC Alencon's Dominion Day Celebrations.
A second page in the program listed participants' names by company.  Noticeably absent from the list was No. 2 Construction Company, whose members appear to have been excluded from the day's competitions.  Such discrimination, while disappointing, was by no means uniform.  A similar gathering in CFC's Jura District included No. 2 Construction personnel:

"Dominion Day celebrated by the 11 Forestry Companies and No. 2 Construction Company in this District (No. 5).  Field sports held at Chapois….  During the day, the [No. 2 Construction] Band… by their excellent music... greatly assisted in entertaining the crowd and making the holiday a success."

In fact, a summary of the day's results reveals an impressive performance by No. 2 Construction's Jura personnel.  Private Davis, an American recruit, placed first in the 100 yard-dash and second in the running broad jump, while Private Whims, one of two brothers from Saltsprings Island, BC, placed first in the sack race "by a big margin".  Joe's brother Bill, the only Nova Scotian listed in the results, placed second in the 440-yard dash.  No. 2 Construction Company earned a total of 17 points in the day's events, placing third amongst the fourteen French, American and Canadian teams.

Throughout the late summer and early autumn, CFC personnel serving in France were granted leaves in small numbers.  In this instance, No. 2 Construction, having worked 'overseas' for fifteen months, received the same treatment.  On September 15, 1918, Joe was granted 14 days' leave to England, rejoining his unit at Alencon on September 27.  By the time of his return, his comrades had likely received word of a shocking incident that took place at Jura.

On September 23, 1918, No. 2 Construction Company's war diary recorded receipt of the following notice from Jura HQ:

"# 931410 Pte. Some, C. found dead (presumably murdered) on Road 45, a narrow road which leads from the main Andelot Road to Salins.  French authorities posted Gendarmes… and proceeded to investigate the case."

A native of Natal, South Africa, Charlie Some enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Halifax on January 13, 1917.  While he accompanied the battalion to England, Charlie was not initially selected for service with CFC.  Instead, six months after arriving in England, Pte. Some was transferred to the 17th Reserve Battalion, Bramshott, where he was the victim of a violent assault.  On November 30, 1917, Charlie was hospitalized with a 'lacerated wd. [wound to his] scalp" received when "he was hit in the head by a man with a piece of iron".

Charlie was discharged from hospital two weeks later and spent the winter of 1917-18 at Bramshott.  On May 19, 1918, he returned to the ranks of No 2 Construction Company and was subsequently selected for service with the CFC in France.  After his arrival in Jura on June 6, 1918, his service record contains no reference to further incidents until the day of his untimely death.

Authorities immediately convened a Military Board of Officers to investigate the incident.  Two days later, Charlie's remains were taken to La Joux, where Captain Emmett Scarlett, CAMC, conducted a post-mortem examination.  On September 26, Pte. Charles Some was "interned with full military honours in the Cemetery of Supt, France in the Department of Jura."

One week later, the Court of Inquiry reported that Pte. Some was "murdered by some person or persons unknown with a long sharp cutting instrument."  The report included a statement attributed to Major Sutherland, No. 2 Construction Company's OC:

"According to finding of Court of Inquiry, suspicion points strongly to one Barkat Toumi Mohamad # 27544 of a French Det. quartered in Supt, who was absent at the time of murder." 

Pte. Some's file contains no information as to whether the French soldier or any other individual was ever charged or convicted in connection with his death.

No. 2 Construction Battalion badge.
The men of No. 2 Construction Company continued to work in the forests and lumber camps of Jura and Alencon throughout the autumn of 1918.  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 the CFC's various lumber camps ceased and personnel gradually returned to England.  No. 2 Construction Company was amongst the first to depart.  On December 4, 1918, the Alencon CFC HQ war diary stated: "1 Officer and 135 OR No. 2 Canadian Construction Company (coloured) left for Etaples on Demobilization Draft".

Joe Parris was amongst the men leaving Alencon on that day.  Upon his return to England on December 14 in the company of all No. 2 Construction members, Joe was posted to the Nova Scotia Regimental Depot, Bramshott, where he awaited orders to return to Canada.  Their days in England were not without incident, as sometime after their arrival, another controversial event occurred. 

According to Private Benjamin Elms of Monastery, Antigonish County, a riot broke out between No. 2 Construction personnel and a group of CEF infantrymen at Kemmel Park, Wales, when "a white soldier made a racial remark".  After No. 2 Construction 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, described the incident in these words:

"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 suggest that the 'white' unit stepped in front of No. 2 Construction soldiers waiting their turn in the 'bath' line.  No official CEF documents refer to the incident, nor does Sergeant Sealy's personnel file contain any reference to his involvement.  

Pte. Joe Parris' Service Medals (Mulgrave Community Museum).
On January 12, 1919, Joe and the members of No 2 Construction Company boarded the SS 'Empress of Britain' for the return journey to Canada, arriving in Halifax ten days later.  Exactly one month after departing England - February 12, 1919 - Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris was officially discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force.  In recognition of his service in France, Joe received the British War Medal and Victory Medal, both of which are on display today in the Mulgrave Community Museum.

*****

After his discharge, Joe returned to Mulgrave, where he found employment as a labourer.  On December 1, 1924, he married Annie Jane Jarvis, a native of Tracadie.  Sadly, their married life together was short-lived, as Annie passed away in 1936 from complications due to congestive heart failure.  Joe subsequently married Viola Jane Borden and raised a large family in Mulgrave.

In 1929, Joe became a member of the Mulgrave Branch, Royal Canadian Legion, giving his age at enlistment as 17.  He spent the remainder of his life working in the small Guysborough community close to his birthplace, passing away on April 19, 1972.  Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris was laid to rest in St. Lawrence Catholic Cemetery, Mulgrave, NS, alongside his first wife and two children who died in infancy.

*****
 
Sources:

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

Regimental Record of Pte. Joseph Alexander Parris, number 931017.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: Rg 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 7574 - 69.  Attestation papers available online.

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

Regimental Record of Pte. Charles Some, number 931410.  Library & Archives Canada, Ottawa: RG 150, Accession 1992-93/166, Box 9149 - 40.  Service record available online.

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

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.

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.

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.

4 comments:

  1. Great post..very informative piece.

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  2. Thanks for the feedback, George. There are many aspects of Pte. Parris' story that reflect the general war experience of African Nova Scotians. I hope that I have done justice to their memory in 'telling his story'.

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  3. Hi Bruce, I did a research assignment not too long ago on Charlie Some, as most of his war documents can be found online. Would you agree that the crimes committed against Charlie were racially motivated or do believe that there was some other motivation to the assault and eventually murder of Private Some?

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  4. As you've reviewed Charlie's file, you know that this was not the first incident in which he was involved. The Forestry Corps war diaries contain frequent references to courts martial, many related to fighting in the lumber camps, which appear to have been very "rough and tumble" places. I would agree, however, that the lack of a conviction in connection to Charlie's death (at least, I found no reference to one) may reflect the attitude that an African Canadian soldier's death was not taken as seriously a Caucasian soldier's. In that sense, I think Charlie's story reflects the racism and prejudice to which many African Canadian soldiers were subjected.

    ReplyDelete