Tracing the Footsteps of No. 2 Construction Battalion in Jura, France

January 20, 2022 - Defence Stories

Caption

2Lt Downey poses next to a picture of his great-grandfather George A Downey and relative James Downey at the Supt Town Hall, France, on November 10, 2021.
Photo by LCol Barry Pitcher.

By Second Lieutenant Jerome Downey, Princess Louise Fusiliers

JURA, FRANCE – On the eve of Remembrance Day in 2021, while tracing the footsteps of No. 2 Construction Battalion in Jura, France, I had a surreal experience. I stumbled upon a photograph of my great-grandfather Private George A. Downey on a wall at the Supt Town Hall.

No. 2 Construction Battalion was stood up in Pictou, Nova Scotia, on July 5, 1916 as a segregated, non-combatant unit. During the First World War, systemic prejudices prevented Blacks from serving in most Canadian military units. No. 2 Construction Battalion was designed to absorb those who persisted, as well as those who, later, were conscripted to join the military effort.

The men of the Battalion served in Canada and Europe, mostly in the Jura Region of France, before returning to a nation that soon erased their memory from the historical narrative, even when other units were celebrated and memorialised.

My great-grandfather served in No. 2 Construction Battalion and Veterans Guard during the Second World War.  I joined the Canadian Army Reserve in 2018 as an Infantry Officer with The Princess Louise Fusiliers of Halifax. One of the major reasons I joined was to honour the memory of my great grandfather’s service. I’ve been blessed with amazing opportunities as a Canadian and I wanted to give back. The fact that my great-grandfather was denied the opportunity to serve in a combat role for which today, as an officer, I’m training to lead, is not lost on me.

This is why I was proud to be assigned a planning role when the Canadian Army answered the call of the Government of Canada to support a community-led program to apologise for the racism that Blacks experienced from the Canadian military institution during the First World War. As part of my work, I traveled to the Jura Region with my Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Barry Pitcher, from November 9th - 11th, and participated in a ceremony of remembrance in honour of No 2. Construction Battalion.

We visited the Commonwealth Cemetery in Supt, where fallen members of No. 2 Construction Battalion and the Canadian Forestry Corps were laid to rest. We also paid homage at a monument memorialising No. 2 Construction Battalion. We toured the original site where No. 2 Construction members were stationed in the heart of European forestry. The Mayor of Supt then hosted a reception at the Town Hall.  This explains how I chanced upon my Great Grandfather’s photograph in Supt.

This pilgrimage gave us a first-hand account of No. 2 Construction’s contributions and international significance. Seeing the monument and connecting with the community, we gained a better appreciation of how this predominantly Black unit made an impact after fighting for the right to serve. They served before the civil-rights movement era, and were treated as second-class citizens. Despite this reality, No. 2 Construction Battalion served Canada honourably. Its members made a difference at home and abroad. They are honoured abroad. I’m proud that they will now receive a fitting honour back home, and that I have a role in this.

Image gallery

  • 2Lt Downey presents Mr Charles Thevenin with a copy of a book about No.2 Construction Battalion in Supt on November 10, 2021. Mr Thevenin has authored a book about the Canadian troops in the area during the First World War, including No.2 Construction Battalion.  Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
  • 2Lt Downey and Capt Christophe Laforest-Huot of the Canadian Embassy in France present Supt Mayor Madame Evelyne Comte with a traditional Kente gift from the Black Cultural Center of Nova Scotia the Canadian Forestry Corps/ No. 2 Construction Battalion Memorial in Supt on November 10, 2021. Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
  • 2Lt Downey places a miniature No.2 Construction Battalion flag at the Canadian Forestry Corps/ No. 2 Construction Battalion Memorial in Supt on November 10, 2021. Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
  • 2Lt Downey joins Colonel Pierre Hache, Canadian Military Attaché in France, to lay a wreath at the Canadian Forestry Corps/ No. 2 Construction Battalion Memorial in Supt on November 10, 2021. Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
  • Canadian personnel join French officials during the Jura Region Remembrance Ceremony at Lons-le-Saunier, France, on November 11, 2021. Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
  • 2Lt Downey and LCol Pitcher pause at the Canadian Forestry Corps/ No. 2 Construction Battalion Memorial in Supt on November 10, 2021. Photo by Cpl Brad Upshall.
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