I purchased The Black Battalion: 1916-1920 Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret by Calvin W. Ruck when I visited the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia in the spring of 2010. Official policy at the time did not discriminate when black men enlisted their services for World War I, however the government left it up to individual recruitment officers to hire who they saw fit. While Ruck did write of some integrated squadrons during this time, they were the exception. When black men were turned away, six hundred nonetheless were banded together to form the No. 2 Construction Battalion (Canadian Expeditionary Force). This particular battalion did not serve in combat yet some men were pulled from the team to serve on the battlefield. Some of these black soldiers gave their lives for our freedom.
When able-bodied men were conscripted into service, the government didn’t discriminate based on race. Therefore the men whose services had been refused now found themselves enlisted as potential soldiers. This didn’t sit well in the minds of some of the men, who called out the government’s double standard. Some were rightfully ticked off and were unwilling to serve a country that didn’t want them in the first place.
A dinner hosted by the Black Cultural Society of Nova Scotia for these veterans in November 1982 was the catalyst for Ruck to write this book. He conducted interviews and provided plenty of photographs of these soldiers from WWI up until the time of the book’s publication in the early 1980’s.
Ruck cited from letters written by spurned recruits and official government correspondence and reproduced these letters in the back of the book. Over one hundred years ago some military officials were evidently against segregation and praised men of colour who tried to enlist. However, they were in the minority, as most officials espoused opinions such as this:
“The proportion of coloured men wanting to enlist is very small, and I would feel very loath to risk the experiment of taking on negroes when plenty of white men were available. Neither my men nor myself, would care to sleep alongside them, or to eat with them, especially in warm weather. A white man’s appetite is a peculiar thing.”
In 2022 attitudes such as that are a peculiar thing.
At the end of the book Ruck listed every name that he was able to find who was enlisted in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, CEF, along with his rank and city or town of origin. He also listed sixteen men who had served in the 106th Battalion, CEF, much smaller but an all-black combat unit. To pay tribute to all of these veterans I slowly read each and every name.