Black Identity and the Great War: History from the Bottom Up

by Roger P Nason

About a dozen years ago, I began researching community identity. I was expanding on questions I asked as an historian and trained archivist who was studying the settlement of St. Andrews, New Brunswick (NB) after the American Revolution. While most tend to focus on military campaigns, political leaders, and elites, I wanted to figure out the identities and motivations of rank-and-file refugees who were fleeing the conflict. What compelled them to settle in this new colony?

I began asking these sorts of new questions and found myself exampling “history from the bottom up.”

Little research has attempted to closely examine the patterns of recruitment at the community level, particularly in rural Canada. In his cross-border examination of St. Stephen, NB and Calais, Maine, Brandon Dimmel comes close by spotlighting the personal stories behind local recruiting efforts. Curtis Mainville’s study of Queens County, NB in the New Brunswick Military Heritage Project Series probes even further into home front activities during the Great War. He draws on wider data from the 620,000 attestation records located at Library Archives Canada to sift out the recruiting statistics for the county.

Understanding recruitment in small rural communities still requires filtering through reams of attestation forms to identify local soldiers, nursing sisters, officers, and other medical staff. Accessing them by geographical location in parish communities where they were born or resided at the time of enlistment has its problems, as forms were often completed by recruiting officers who misspelled names or inaccurately recorded their hometowns. The task of identifying enlistees must therefore be corroborated by newspaper accounts as well as family, census, and military records. Many of these now appear online through subscription web sites like Ancestry. These sources reveal additional information about soldiers before and after the war, allowing further study into the patterns and motives for enlistment and demobilization.

Without more efforts to closely examine these primary sources, we cannot get a full perspective about how small rural communities responded to the 1914 call to arms. Only then will we begin to determine whether recruiting activities were unique in some communities or if they are representative of a broader pattern in the province and across Canada.

I started this “from the bottom up” history by examining community members enlisting in the Canadian Expeditionary Force from 1914 to 1918 who came from Grand Manan Island. Located in the southwest corner of the Bay of Fundy, I reconstituted the lives of the 124 men and one woman who stepped forward from about 2,200 citizens of Grand Manan by combing through newspapers, vital statistics, government manuscripts, and family records. Soon, I found myself looking at the mainland and seeking out the experiences of Indigenous and Black enlistees.

Daily Gleaner, 16 August 1916. Left to right: Manzer Eatman, George H Clayburn, James Hector, John Eatman, and Frank Clayburn.

How could I be sure that surnames like McIntyre, Eatman, Nash, Paul, Dixon, O’Ree, Blizzard, Dymond, and Hoyt pointed me to Black veterans? I needed to fully reconstitute their lives through vital statistics, census records, newspaper accounts, and land registry office documents. To date, I have confirmed 77 Black enlistees in the First World War from across New Brunswick.

As I work through these records, I am updating a digital spreadsheet to keep track of this group.

An analysis of attestation forms and other available service records indicate that recruits were predominately born in St. John County (34), with others born in York County (19), Queens County (6), and Carleton County (6). Sunbury County contributed five enlistees and Northumberland County offered two more. Two were born in Nova Scotia and the others were born in the Caribbean (3), Maine (1), and New York City (1). One soldier claimed birth in South Africa, but other records overwhelmingly cite him as born in Elm Hill near Gagetown, NB.

The average age of an enlistee in the First World War was 26. Black recruits fell below that average. 55 per cent of Black enlistees were in between 17 and 24, while 21 others were between 25 and 35. The oldest member was 46 years old. In terms of marital status, nearly 70 per cent were single men; the remainder were married soldiers, including two widowers.

Along occupational lines, enlistees declared backgrounds in farming (11), general labour (26), teamsters/cartmen (4), and millman/woodsman (4). Other recruits cited positions as clerks, chefs/cooks, chauffeurs/truck drivers, bridgemen/construction, seamen, hotel porter/bellmen, masons/stone cutters/concrete workers, iron workers, butchers, printers, foremen, barbers, coopers, telephone operators, sales managers, and even a horse back rider.

First Saint John Citizens to Sign Up in No. 2 Battalion, Daily Telegraph, 17 August 1916. From left to right, standing: Thomas Treadwell, Herbert Nichols, Roy Hayes, Robert Bushfan; Back row, sitting: Charles Williams, James Holmes, Percy Ritchie, Elijah Tyler; Front row: AC Austin, Harold McCarthy

These recruits enlisted in three centres: Fredericton, Saint John, and Sussex. The primary unit for enlistment out of the 77 recruits was the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion—an all-Black unit created in early 1916. Other enlistees joined the 12th, 26th, 55th, 69th, 104th, 112th, 140th, and 236th Battalions, while still others found themselves attached to the 7th Battalion (Canadian Garrison), the No. 1 Construction Battalion, the 1st Depot Battalion or the 65thDepot Battery located in Woodstock. A large number initially enlisted in reserve battalions. We cannot determine what units the recruits were eventually transferred to, however, without further extensive analysis of personnel service records.

Recent studies of Black Canadian enlistees clearly demonstrate that most military leaders did not want them in their ranks. When volunteers first came forward after the declaration of war, commanding officers from across the nation sought official advice from Divisional Headquarters in Ottawa. The Minister of Militia and Defence was evasive and non-committal, leaving the decision up to each commanding officer in their region. Col. George W. Fowler in New Brunswick seemed to reflect a common attitude held by recruiting officers in the years before No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed in March 1916. His refusal of Black recruits for the “white” battalions is quoted by Melissa Shaw: “he had been ‘fortunate to have secured a very fine class of recruits, and I did not think it was fair to these men that they should have to mingle with negroes.’” (552)

Further study is needed to seek out Black New Brunswickers who migrated to other parts of Canada and the United States to work and settle before the war. Preliminary research reveals that at least 30 people who registered for the American military draft after April 1917 listed their place of residence in Boston and Portland, Maine as well as NB border communities such as Houlton, Calais, and Eastport.  Still others returned to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

As more official records become available and access to digitized contemporary newspapers increase, historians can paint more detailed pictures of Black enlistee contributions to the military. This research also affords a unique way of peering into the everyday life of families and how they responded to the ravages of war at a local level.

A former archivist with the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, Roger P. Nason holds a B.A. from St. Thomas University and M.A. in History from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Further Reading:

Cook, Tim. At the Sharp End: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Vol. 1. Toronto: Viking, 2007.

Cook, Tim. Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War 1914-1916, Vol. 2. Toronto: Viking 2008.

Morton, Desmond. When Your Number’s Up: The Canadian Soldier in the First World War. Toronto: Random House, 1993.

Morton, Desmond. Fight or Pay: Soldiers’ Families in the Great War. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Ruck, Calvin. The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret. Halifax, Nimbus Publishing, 1987.

Rutherdale, Robert, Hometown Horizons: Local Responses to Canada’s Great War, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Shaw, Melissa N.,” ’Most Anxious to Serve their Ling and Country’: Black Canadians’ Fight to Enlist in WW1 and Emerging Race Consciousness in Ontario, 1914-1919.” Histoire Sociale/Social History, Vol. XLIX, No. 100, November, 2016.

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2 thoughts on “Black Identity and the Great War: History from the Bottom Up

  1. Kathy Grant

    My name is Kathy Grant and I am a public historian. My gage is Black Canadian Veterans Stories of War FB. Forty years ago , Montreal educator and WWII veteran Thamis Gale researched over 1300 Black soldiers in the CEF. His father “William” had served in the No 2 Construction Bn. The names you have listed in your article were included in Thamis’ research.. In 2010 I was gifted this research by his daughter Podina, In 2011, created a database of these soldiers and sent dozens of the names of the Black soldiers in the CEF to P.R.U.D.E. Over 40 of them were from the No 2. Battalion. Over 30 were from non segregated units. This painstaking work was done before computers. before access to “online” records. I am engaging students to research these soldiers as part of Twinning project. A couple names that are not No 2 are Pte Gilbert Henry Lauchner of St John and Fredericton’s Pte Earl McCarty Leek.

  2. Andreia V


    Is your spreadsheet available. Desperately trying to find a way to find my daughter “nova scotian/ new brunswick” family.

    I dont know where to start I’ve gotten 5 generations but stuck on anything beyond that. Census all say they were already in Canada and I’m trying to pinpoint where they came from

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