No. 2 Construction Battalion

Fighting for a country that didn’t want them.

On March 25 1917, Canada’s first and only black military unit left Halifax harbor for the Western Front. Six hundred soldiers, mostly from Nova Scotia, formed up as No. 2 Construction Battalion. Many had been trying to enlist since 1914,  but winning this privilege had been an up-hill fight: for two years military authorities had turned down black recruits, telling them “This is a white man’s war.”

Finally, in 1916, Canada allowed black recruits entry into a segregated united of laborers. An additional 165 African-Americans crossed the border to join them, creating a full complement of 600 men. Winning the struggle to join up hardly ended discrimination. Except for the reverend, all officers were white, and even when they went to board their transport ship on March 25 the captain initially refused to let them on, saying that he would not let them travel on the same vessel as white soldiers.

The recruits hoped to be allowed to fight when they reached France, but instead the Canadian Expediotnary Force immediately downgraded them from a battalion to a company and assigned them to fell trees and prepare positions for white soldiers. They were not ever even issued with rifles. Their work was tedious and demoralizing, and many considered themselves failures even as they suffered casualties from artillery shells and poison gas.

The unit returned to Canada in 1919, but received no fanfare upon arrival. Much like America’s black soldiers, they returned to a country that did not value them or their sacrifice and actively oppressed their rights. Most of these veterans returned to poverty and unemployment. When they finally had their first reunion in 1982, only nine could attend from twenty known survivors. Their legacy and sacrifice has been revived since then. Although very few men were allowed the chance to serve, they began the first crack in the Canadian military’s institutionalized racism.

Ludendorff Agrees to Send Lenin to Russia

Parvus (left) with Trotsky (center) and Menshevik leader Leo Deutsch (right).

March 25 1917, Bad Kreuznach–The revolution in Russia opened up hope for the Germans that Russia, no longer expecting a great imperial victory, could be removed from the war diplomatically.  However, the first indications out of the Provisional Government were that they intended to honor their commitments to the Allies and continue with the war.  In fact, some Germans incorrectly believed that the revolution had been organized by British agents to remove the unpopular Czar and put the war effort on a stronger, more democratic footing.

A Marxist revolutionary, Alexander Helphand (codename Parvus) was working for German intelligence in Copenhagen.  He had been friends with Lenin since 1900, and thought that now would be the perfect opportunity to send Lenin back to Russia from exile in Switzerland.  He told the German ambassador in Copenhagen that Lenin was “much more raving mad” than the leaders of the Soviet or the Provisional Government, that he would create “the greatest possible chaos,” seize power himself, and conclude a separate peace with Germany.  

The German government was soon convinced, though they took little interest in Lenin or Bolshevism itself; copies of his articles sent to Berlin were never read.  The question now was how to get Lenin to Russia, which would almost necessarily require transit through German territory.  On March 25, after meeting with Parvus, Ludendorff agreed to send the Bolsheviks in Switzerland by train through Germany to the Baltic coast, from where they would then travel to Russia via Sweden.  Lenin, however, still took some convincing, insisting that he be sent on a “sealed train” so that there would be a legal fiction that he never legally entered Germany and thus did not collaborate with the Germans; he ultimately agreed on March 31, and would depart Switzerland on April 8.

Today in 1916: British Attempt to Strike Back at Zeppelins
Today in 1915:  UK Colonial Secretary Issues Memo on “The Spoils”

Sources include: Robert B. Asprey, The German High Command at War; Richard Pipes, The Russian Revolution.

March 26, 1917 - Palestine: First Battle of Gaza

Ottoman cavalry in Gaza, 1917.

The Imperial Egyptian Expeditionary Force had staved off several Ottoman attacks on the Suez Canal since the beginning of the war, and then by the beginning of 1917 conquered the Sinai Peninsula, opening up the possibility of an advance along the Mediterranean through Palestine.

In front of Sir Archibald Murray and the EEF, however, were a series of Ottoman defensive lines positioned on the ridges running east-west between Gaza and Beersheba, guarded by 18,000 troops commanded by German general Kress von Kressenstein. Kressenstein’s force included complements of German and Austro-Hungarian soldiers diverted to the Near East as well, but the British force facing them numbered twice as many, under the command of Murray’s subordinate Sir Charles Dobell.

Dobell’s men assembled 8km from Gaza on March 26 and approached under the protection of a morning deep fog. Dobell held the element of surprise, and the first sign the Turks had of the attack was British cavalry galloping around to encircle them. The Ottoman positions closest to the sea at Gaza were cut off. The Welshman of the 53rd Infantry Division thus charged in with a massive advantage over their enemies.

Unfortunately, the British immediately ripped defeat from the jaws of victory. The officer commanding the cavalry withdrew when he took the impression that the infantry assault had been a failure. Kressenstein, now fully alerted to the danger, rushed 4,000 more men to Gaza. Dobell was left with 4,000 casualties and empty-hands at the end of the day.

Armistice Day

Armistice Day is commemorated every year on November 11 to mark the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front of World War I, which took effect at eleven o'clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. The date was declared a national holiday in many allied nations, and coincides with Remembrance Day and Veterans Day.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“All quiet on the Eastern front”
… really, mum. They’re just horribly misunderstood creatures, Ironbellies. Pyotr Kravchenko, the Chief Warlock of the Beast Division here in Tarnopol, is a staunch supporter of the Tsar and has named all the dragons after members of the Muggle royal family. Nikolai is positively sweet. Anastasia can be a handful at times, but nothing we can’t handle. I think she may be allergic to something they’re feeding her.

Thanks for the woollen socks you sent, and especially for the Hot Air Charm you’ve put on them.

Please give my love to Theseus when you write to him. And make sure Nipper eats properly. He always moults so badly while I’m away. They say we’ll be home by Christmas, so I’ll be seeing you soon.

Your loving son,