BY KARLA KELLY
Two of Devon Mullen’s great-grandfathers are unsung heroes from the First World War.
The men volunteered for the No. 2 Construction Battalion in 1916 and were given shovels for rifles to “fight” in a white man’s war.
Percy J. Richards of Saint John, and James Elmer Cromwell of Southville, Digby County, are both recognized in Calvin W. Ruck’s book, The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret.
When Canada sent out the call for volunteers after war was declared on Germany in August, 1914, tens of thousands answered - but not all were received.
Large numbers of black volunteers, including many Nova Scotians, saw military service as a responsibility as well as a right, but were rejected because of their color. They were told it was a white man’s war.
Mullen, 14, of Weymouth Mills, learned Richards attempted to enlist in the army several times.
“My great-grandfather went to the recruiting center in Sussex with some of his friends several times to try and join up, but the recruitment officer, who was of German descent, told them that it wasn’t a black man’s war,” says Mullen. “The officer wanted to know why my greatgrandfather and his friends would even want to join the army.”
Richards was one of hundreds not willing to accept this rejection. Over the next two years, the highest levels of both civilian and military authorities were bombarded with concerns, questions and protests over the basic human right to serve.
Finally, July 5, 1916, a segregated unit - the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force - was authorized, with black men and boys, some as young as 15, volunteering for duty. They were given shovels instead of rifles and attached to the Forestry Corps in France, digging trenches, building huts and cutting, loading and shipping lumber for the railroad and the front lines.
Richards enlisted at Saint John Aug. 10, 1916, at the age of 21, and trained in Pictou and Truro before embarking for Europe.
The ranks of the black battalion swelled to over 600 from across Canada, with half the enlisted men from Nova Scotia. Over 20 were from Digby County, including 16-year-old Cromwell.
Cromwell enlisted at an army recruitment center in Weymouth Oct. 13, 1916. He was only 16 years old, but told recruiters he was 18 so he could go with his friends. He had four months of training with the battalion in Truro before being sent overseas as part of a road repair crew, restoring roadways after they had been shelled by the Germans in areas where the fighting was intense. He later rode horseback as a dispatch rider, delivering mail and messages to the front for several months near the end of the war.
Cromwell returned to his home community, where he and his wife, Jane, raised 14 children.
Six other Cromwell men from the Weymouth area joined the battalion, including 19-year-old Private Arthur Benson Cromwell from Weymouth Falls, who died in April 1917 en route to England on the SS Southland.
William Richards, a Korean War veteran from Southville, says his father, Percy, joined for the same reason he and his brother, Raymond, joined the army in 1949.
“My brother, along with myself and our friends, were eager to join up and fight for our country, which was the noble idea but it was also an adventure, and our father felt the same way,” William Richards says. “He didn’t want to be denied his right and, growing up, he instilled in us the same sense of patriotic duty to serve our country.”
Richards was eventually sent to the 21st Battalion, C.E.F., where he served as the bugler until the end of the war. He returned home in February, 1919, married Violet Bright from the Weymouth area and lived in Southville for a number of years before returning to Saint John with his family.
Both William and Raymond Richards say their father taught all 12 of his children how to be good citizens, showing respect to their fellowman.
“Our dad was a strong disciplinarian, and it served us well. Many of us, including six of my own children, carried on the military tradition that began with my father,” says William Richards.
The Office of African Nova Scotia Affairs is recognizing and honouring individuals and groups throughout the province for their achievements and contributions.
African Nova Scotian Affairs Minister Percy Paris says the program is designed to include as many achievements as possible, including education, military or police service, and milestones in community service. February is African Heritage Month.
Mullen is proud both his greatgrandfathers were determined to serve their country, in spite of the challenges they faced at that time.
“I am proud of my family history and what these men achieved,” says Mullen. “I would be happy to nominate them for their accomplishments and the legacy they left me.”