Black Soldiers in the Great War

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Driver James Grant, M.M., 49th Battalion CEF,  in First World War uniform, note the Military Medal ribbon, awarded to Grant for his actions around Zonniebeke, Belgium in November 1917. (Image displayed courtesy of Donna Ford)

So our people, gratefully remembering their obligations in this respect, are most anxious to serve their King and Country in this critical crisis in its history, and they do not think they should be prevented from so doing on the ground of the hue of their skin.   (George Morton to Sam Hughes, Minister of Militia, September 7, 1915)

When the First World War broke out in 1914, young Black Canadians lined up along with other eager young men to “do their bit” for their country.

Many of these men were faced with discrimination and were turned away at the recruiting offices. Faced with pressure to address this issue, Minister of Militia, Sam Hughes issued orders that no person was to be discriminated against based on their race if they chose to join the Canadian Army. In practice, however, it was up to the local regimental Commanding Officer to decide whether to admit coloured troops into their ranks. Very few chose to open up their unit to black soldiers.

It is estimated that 2000 black men succeeded in joining regular units including James Grant, a resident of St. Catharines, who enlisted with the 49th Battery. He was a well-respected and liked member of the unit notable for his deep bass singing voice. On November 4th, 1917, his actions near Zonniebeke, Belgium won him the Military Medal- the first African-Canadian to win this distinction in the war.

In 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in Nova Scotia as the first and only segregated military unit in Canadian history. Its members sailed for Europe in March 1917 and served with the Canadian Forestry Corps throughout the war, performing construction duties such as maintaining trenches and cutting lumber for the repair of roads and railroads. Ernest Bell, a local resident joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion rather than the locally recruited units.

 

 

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