By: CTVNews Staff Writer(s)
A tiny French village unveiled a long overdue memorial to the men once dubbed Canada’s best kept military secret - the No. 2 Construction Battalion of the CEF's Forestry Corps; who fought for their right to fight for King and Country during the First World War.
The first and only black battalion in Canadian military history is being honoured in the Supt, in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region of eastern France, on September 29, 2018.
Douglas Ruck, chair of the board of governors for the University of King's College in Halifax, N.S, is son of the late Senator Calvin W. Ruck who wrote the book Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret – The No. 2 Construction Battalion C.E.F.
He told CTV News that after war erupted in Europe, Canada was brought into the conflict as part of the British Empire.
“While the white individuals were treated with great joy and taken into the fold, the black soldiers were rejected,” he said.
“Not because of any physical impairment, but because of the color of their skin and the perception that they were inferior and would not make good soldiers.”
From 1914 to 1916 the black soldiers fought for the right to fight through protests, petitions and bringing pressure to bear, Ruck says.
In 1916 they were granted permission to join the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, but in a segregated unarmed unit, going to war with pick-axes and shovels.
As part of the forestry corps near the frontlines, the soldiers cut trees for lumber, trenches, boardwalks and other requirements.
They were also involved with moving the dead and wounded off the battlefield.
In France, the segregation continued and the soldiers received inferior treatment, being the last to receive supplies and were often denied basics like underwear and socks.
Ruck told CTV News: “They were relegated to that role, not what they wanted to do, but that was the only choice they had.”
The memorial to the 3,000 Canadian forestry engineers will now bear the names of the 29 forestry engineers who were buried in that town and other nearby towns.
Of the 29, 10 were black men who were part of the 600-member No. 2 Construction Battalion, stationed near Supt, population 115.
It is thought to be the first memorial on French soil that recognizes the black men.
A memorial to the ‘Black Battalion’ already exists in Pictou, N.S, one of two bases in the province where soldiers were mustered before shipping out to Europe.
It is hoped the French monument will help preserve the memory of the brave men that made up the battalion.
Supt Mayor Evelyne Comte spearheaded the campaign to create the tribute after becoming aware of the Canadian contribution when she saw the graves at the cemetery.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended of the Great War.