When Anthony Sherwood stumbled upon the diary of his great uncle, William Andrew White during the mid-1990s, he was blown away by what he found.
As one of the first historical accounts of Canada’s all-black battalion, the No. 2 Construction Battalion during the First World War, the diary revealed the discrimination black soldiers faced at the time.
Sherwood says that this diary provided a “first-hand written account of what was happening to these black soldiers,” and that “nobody knew because it wasn’t in the military records, it wasn’t in the archives.”
“It wasn’t anywhere else. It was in this diary.”
On Feb. 15, the Military Museum screened the award-winning docudrama, Honour Before Glory, in honour of Canadian Black History Month as part of a recurring lecture series.
Doug Stinson, the Manager of the Military Museum, served for 32 years in the Canadian Army, but says this story was unknown to him.
“It was a real eye-opener for me and a piece of our history that really deserves to be told. It’s like [Sherwood] says: it has been, if not suppressed, swept under the rug for many years,” Stinson says.
When the First World War broke out, black men tried to enlist for the army; however, they were refused solely because of the colour of their skin.
During that time, William Andrew White was a baptist minister who advocated for Black Canadian rights.
“He became very involved in trying to persuade the Canadian government to allow blacks to join the army and he spearheaded a movement, a national movement,” Sherwood says.
Finally, the Canadian Government allowed African-Canadians to join the armed forces, which led to the formation of the predominantly black battalion called the No. 2 Construction Battalion. White was granted the title of Chaplain, responsible for religious morale, of the battalion.
While serving overseas, Chaplain White witnessed discrimination of African-American soldiers and decided to start a diary.
“[He] never wrote a diary before in his life and decided to write this diary,” Sherwood says.
During the First World War , the No. 2 Construction Battalion faced many adversities as one of the first coloured battalions in Canadian military history. They were often the last to receive new supplies, were neglected basic needs like socks and underwear, and were worked relentlessly as a labour battalion even through harsh weather conditions.
“They were worked to death,” Sherwood says. “When they got sick, the military doctors refused to take care of them. It was pretty horrible and I think that’s why my great uncle wanted to tell this story.”
As a filmmaker, Sherwood wanted to carry out the legacy of his great uncle and spread the untold story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion.
Black History Month: A Tribute to the No. 2 Construction Battalion
As part of the Military Museum’s lecture series, Doug Stinson thinks it’s important to highlight the bravery of these black soldiers from the First World War. What surprised Stinson the most from the documentary was how the soldiers were buried in unmarked graves.
“If you’ve ever been to the military cemeteries in France, they are beautiful, they are immaculate and extremely well cared for. I think it’s important that these soldiers get the same recognition as all the other soldiers that were buried there,” Stinson says.
Since then, Stinson says that this has been corrected by veteran affairs and the soldiers have proper headstones.
Luzolo Mutambala, an African-Canadian supply technician with the Canadian Armed Forces and also an attendant at the lecture, recognizes the importance of the No. 2 Battalions contributions to his experience in the army today.
“It’s a great honour to see what these guys have done; [they] really laid down the foundation to what I am experiencing in the Canadian forces and I really tip my hat to them and really appreciate their sacrifices and their loyalty to this country,” Mutambala says.
The film achieved a number of honours, including a 2002 Gemini Award and the second place prize at the Hollywood Black Film Festival in Los Angeles, but Sherwood says that Honour Before Glory’s greatest accomplishment is telling the story of the soldiers of the No. 1 Construction Battalion.
“The most gratifying thing for me is inevitably if I’m showing the film somewhere in Canada, at the end of the film somebody always comes up to me and says, ‘you know what, I saw my great grandfather in that film. I saw a picture [of him]’ or ‘you know what, I saw my uncle in that film and I never knew that he was a part of that battalion.’ And they thank me for telling that story and that is the biggest reward for me,” Sherwood says.
Edited by: Omar Subhi Omar | firstname.lastname@example.org