Book Review – The Black Battalion: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret – By Calvin W. Ruck – Published by Nimbus Publishing
126 pp. $17.95 – Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Sometime later on this year, Canadians will get their first glimpse of a new $10 bill bearing the image of Viola Desmond, an early heroine in the fight for civil rights in this country. In November 1946, while attending a movie showing in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Ms. Desmond refused to leave a section of the theatre that was informally reserved for whites. Even though she had broken no law, Ms. Desmond was forcibly removed from the theatre, compelled to spend the night in jail, and, incredibly, charged and later convicted of defrauding the government of precisely one cent of tax revenue.
Notwithstanding the fact that her subsequent attempts to appeal the conviction and sue the theatre were unsuccessful, Ms. Desmond’s case proved to be a pivotal moment in the struggle for equal rights for Black Canadians, and was a major contributing factor to the creation of Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. In 2010, Ms. Desmond became the first Canadian ever to receive a posthumous pardon, and earlier this year, she was named a National Historic Person. Not long from now, the new currency bearing her image will be circulating throughout the land as an enduring testimonial to her indomitable courage.
It’s sad to say, but Viola Desmond was by no means the only victim of the deeply ingrained racism that was widespread throughout Canada for a good part of our history. In The Black Battalion, the late Calvin Ruck, a former Senator and recipient of the Order of Canada tells the story of another group of his fellow Nova Scotians who eagerly wanted to fight for King and Country, but who were often denied the opportunity to do so for no other reason than the colour of their skin. Originally published in 1987, The Black Battalion was reprinted in 2016 to mark the 100th anniversary of the establishment of No. 2 Construction Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the unit whose history forms the basis of much of the book.
As Ruck notes in his book, at many critical junctures throughout history Black soldiers compiled an impressive record of service to the British Crown. In both the American Revolution and later the War of 1812, many runaway slaves volunteered to fight for the British, often distinguishing themselves through their courage on the battlefield. One of the most noteworthy Black servicemen of the 19th century was William Edward Hall, who had been born in 1827 in Horton, Nova Scotia. While serving with the Royal Navy during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, Hall was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions during the Siege of Lucknow. The old sailor continued to serve for another two decades before retiring and returning home to his birthplace in rural Nova Scotia, where he died in 1904.
When the Great War erupted in the autumn of 1914, like many of their fellow countrymen, Black Canadians eagerly swarmed into recruiting offices, anxious to volunteer their services and join the colours. Most were quickly and curtly turned away, frequently with offensive explanations to the effect that it was “a white man’s war” and the government “didn’t want a chequer-board army.” Even those who were lucky enough to be accepted for enlistment soon discovered that they were unwelcome. In one celebrated case in 1915, a group of twenty Black volunteers reported to the training camp at Sussex, New Brunswick, only to learn that they would not be permitted to join the battalion in which they had supposedly enlisted. The disappointed recruits were sent back to Saint John, and the story of what had happened to them subsequently caused a minor furor.
During the early years of the war, efforts to appeal the systematic rejection of Black volunteers fell on deaf ears. However, as the war dragged on and the need for manpower became increasingly acute, the government eventually relented. In the spring of 1916, the Chief of the Canadian General Staff, Major General Willoughby Gwatkin, issued a memorandum in which he raised doubts about the loyalty and combat capabilities of Black men, and rejected the notion of creating an all-Black front line unit. He did, however, concede that Blacks could likely be usefully employed in labour battalions, and this resulted in the establishment of No 2. Construction Battalion on July 5 of that year.
The newly-formed battalion spent its first three months in Pictou, Nova Scotia, following which it was relocated to Truro. An initial target of one thousand recruits was set, but this soon proved to be a difficult goal to meet. Eventually, with strength of 19 officers and 605 men in the ranks, in March 1917 the battalion sailed from Halifax. Upon arrival in France, it was assigned to the Canadian Forestry Corps, with which it would serve for the rest of the war.
In early 1919, with commendations for its discipline and exemplary service to its credit, No. 2 Construction Battalion returned to Canada. By the time it was formally disbanded September 1920, it was, and still remains, the only all-Black military unit in Canada history. Twenty years later some of its former members, like the brothers Seymour and Charles Tyler of Saint John, would go on to re-enlist, and serve once again during the Second World War.
While No. 2 Construction Battalion was busily laboring in France, back home everything abruptly changed on August 29, 1917, with the passage of the Military Service Act. Suddenly, every able-bodied male between the ages of 20 and 45 was eligible to be called up, regardless of their race. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the snubs they had forced to endure during the early years of the war, some Black men were reluctant to answer the call when the military authorities came knocking.
One such individual was John Crawley of North Preston, Nova Scotia. Accosted by conscription officials in Dartmouth while on an outing to buy groceries, Crawley and his brother-in-law Harry Sparks were both taken into custody and shipped off to Halifax. Crawley’s father intervened and persuaded the Army to let his son go, with the explanation that at only 18 years of age, he was too young to serve. Sparks wasn’t so lucky; he ended up in uniform and was soon sent overseas, where his subsequent fate remains unknown.
Thankfully, much has changed in the 100 years since that time, and the Canada of today is now a much more diverse and inclusive society than was the case during the era of the Great War. At a time when the Canadian Forces are working diligently to create a military that is reflective of the broader population which it defends, books like The Black Battalion provide a good reminder of the fact that Canadians of all ethnicities and backgrounds have served with distinction in the past. In addition to recounting the history of the unit itself, the book is also replete with stories of many of the soldiers who served in its ranks. The last of these brave warriors have now long departed this earth, but their legacy remains one of proud and honourable service to a country that all too often failed to treat them with the respect and dignity they so richly deserved.