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What military unit was known as Canada's Black Battalion during the First World War?

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Like thousands of other Canadians during the First World War, young black soldiers were eager to serve their country. But at the time, informal segregation made it difficult for blacks to join the Canadian Army. After several appeals and protest to senior military officials, the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force - also known as the Black Battalion - was authorized on 5 July 1916. It was a segregated non-combatant labour unit, the first and only all-Black battalion in Canadian military history. While recruitment took place across Canada, the majority of recruits came from the Maritime provinces with half of the men originating from Nova Scotia. The Headquarters was first located at the Market Wharf in Pictou, Nova Scotia and later transferred to Truro, Nova Scotia. As the unit proceeded overseas, it consisted of 19 officers and 605 other ranks. The battalion was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel D.H. Sutherland of River John, Nova Scotia and Honorary Captain Reverend William A. White served as their chaplain. Captain White is reported to have been the only black commissioned officer in the British forces during the First World War. After a short stay in England, the unit continued to serve honourably in France as part of the Canadian Forestry Corps, providing lumber necessary to maintain trenches on the front lines. The officers and men were commended for their valuable and faithful service and the unit was disbanded on 15 September 1920. In August 1991, the town of Pictou declared the Market Wharf a local historic property, because of its association with the battalion. National recognition for the site and battalion was further received when the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada officially announced that the Wharf was designated a National Historic Site. Seven months later, on 10 July 1993, in the presence of an estimated one thousand people, a granite monument and an interpretive panel was unveiled at the market Wharf in Pictou in commemoration of Canada's first and only Black Battalion. As shown in the photograph, the monument has inscribed on its base a fitting tribute: "THEY SERVED THEIR COUNTRY HONOURABLY".

On this day, 5 July 2022, we commemorate the 106th anniversary of the official authorization of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force and mark the 29th anniversary of the dedication of the monument erected in their honour in Pictou, Nova Scotia.

André M. Levesque

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