WWI Labour Battalions: Black Canadians and Armenian Ottomans

Canadas Black Battalion WWI

The Canadian Expeditionary Force was the name of Canada’s military addition to the Allied (Triple Entente) overseas service during World War I. Saturday was the 100th anniversary of the departure of the 600-soldier strong No. 2 Construction Battalion from Halifax harbour. It was an all-black unit (except their white commanding officer) that had to fight for the right to fight for their country. In the end, they were not allowed to fight with guns; they were given picks and shovels. Of course, their contribution was no less significant to King and Country, because all soldiers at some time are required to do “grunt work” (building trenches and bridges, and clearing paths). But isn’t it interesting—and sad—that this unit was given nothing but grunt work? And that they had to fight discrimination before they were allowed to sign up? I would have felt humiliated had I been in their shoes. But proud, too, to have won the right. [An update from the The Legacy Voices Project, notes, “There were over a thousand black soldiers who were not in the No.2 Construction Battalion, … [who] “bore arms.”]

In the First and the Second Balkan Wars (1912-13), Armenians fought in the Ottoman army along side other loyal Turks, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, and Arabs. When WWI was declared in August 1914, the Ottoman Empire was not yet involved, but began mobilization to prepare for it. In September, Russia (an Allied empire) announced that Armenians in the Caucasus were fighting with them. The Ottoman government and senior military officers decided that their own Armenian Ottoman soldiers were suspect. By the end of the month, Armenians were separated into labour battalions or as porters for the army. By the time the Ottomans joined the Central Powers in late October, Armenians had been removed from combat roles (though there were a few rare exceptions). If you had been a loyal solider, how would you have felt to be stripped of your weapon and removed from your fighting unit? I would have felt betrayed.

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