Reverend William White
Courtesy of Mathias Joost, CD
In the Canadian Militia prior to the First World War, there was little opportunity for Black men to become officers. The Militia was very much based on social status and not on competency. With the start of the First World War too many of the Militia officers who manned the first battalions of the Canadian Expeditionary Force had limited abilities. Slowly they were weeded out – some were killed in action, others were replaced, and more were sent back to Canada. Towards 1916 the Canadian Expeditionary Force began to select officers based on their abilities rather than their social status. In this new atmosphere, some Black soldiers were given a chance.
There were but a handful of Black officers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the Canadian Militia during the First World War. Some became officers by virtue of their professional appointments, such as doctors and chaplains. Others became officers through their abilities. The following describes one of the Black officers of the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
Originally from the United States, Reverend William A. White came to Canada to study theology at Acadia University. Graduating in 1903 he was a travelling missionary until he became minister of the Zion Baptist Church in Truro, Nova Scotia, in May 1905. With the start of the First World War Black men had great difficulty in enlisting in Nova Scotia battalions. When Reverend White was approached by a Black man who had trouble enlisting in the 106th Battalion, he met with the commanding officer and helped to ease the way for Black men into the battalion. When No. 2 Construction Battalion was formed Reverend White was an enthusiastic supporter, even giving speeches at rallies encouraging Black men to enlist in the battalion. Reverend White enlisted on 1 February 1917 and was commissioned as an honorary captain as of that date. The “honorary” part of his rank was because all chaplains were given honorary rank during the First World War and into the Second. Appointed chaplain of No. 2 Construction, Captain White sailed with them to England. Afterwards, when the unit sailed for France, he was with them. He divided his time ministering to his flock at the main base in the Jura District of France and the two detachments in northern France. No. 2 Construction Battalion returned to England in mid-December after the fighting was over. Reverend White returned to Canada in January 1919.
For more about Captain Reverend White, please see Biographi’s entry.
Educators: Click HERE for a Lesson Plan that explores the documentary, Honour before Glory, that tells more about William White and the No.2 Construction Battalion.
Main photo: Reverend and honorary Captain William A. White (Credit: Acadia University).
Our thank you to Mathias Joost, CD, for allowing us to post this article.