They Fought, Bled, and Died: Canada’s Black Soldiers

3 July 2014

nelson harris insertHistorical military records shed light on the real contributions of black Canadians during the First World War.

Due to Canada’s unofficial segregation rules at the time, it is generally believed that black men in the Frist World War were primarily found in labor battalions. These battalions performed crucial wartime duties, such as road and railway building/repair, moving ammunition and stores, and burial detail. The most famous is the Second Construction Battalion, also known as the ‘Black Battalion’, Canada’s first all-black military contingent.

However, Circumstances of Death and War Graves documents along with Attestation papers available on genealogy website Ancestry make it clear that more than 2,000 black and West Indian men fought and died for Canada in the Great War. Many took part in nation-defining battles, including Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, and many died in battle, as some of the records highlight in stark detail:

  • Lieutenant Lancelot Joseph Bertrand was born in Grenada in the West Indies and enlisted at Valcartier, Quebec, in September of 1914. Bertrand was killed in the assault on Hill 70 just prior to the Battle of Lens, Passchendaele, in the Third Battle of Ypres. He is buried at the Vimy Memorial and was a recipient of the Military Cross.
  • Trooper Robert Randolph Simms from Annapolis County, Nova Scotia, was a barber according to his Attestation paper. A member of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, Simms is listed as having ‘died of wounds near Serain (northern France) when his regiment was attacked by aeroplanes with bombs and machine gun fire.’

simms ca attestation

  • Private Nelson Harris from London, Ontario, was a member of the 52nd Battalion. He was ‘killed by enemy shell during operations east of Bourlon Wood, South West of Inchy-en-Artois.’
  • Private Harry Andrews Burke, a farmer from Canfield, Ontario, joined the 116th Battalion. He is listed as ‘Killed in Action. He was hit in the head by an enemy bullet and instantly killed.’ Burke is recorded as having been buried at Canada Cemetery, Tilloy, a village captured by the Canadian Corps at the beginning of October 1918 in the face of strong opposition.

In addition to military records, a wide variety of personal narratives, legal documents, and letters detail the contributions of the black community in defending our country, in government, and in helping lead thousands to freedom through their involvement in the Underground Railroad.

Lesley Anderson, genealogist for Ancestry, comments: ‘These historical records, which are surviving evidence of the accomplishments of black Canadians, throw the spotlight onto long forgotten contributions made by individuals to the growth of our country and to the preservation of our freedom.’

What did you ancestors do during the Great War?

Discover your family story. Start a free trial today.