by Carla-Jean Stokes
In early 2019, I planned to post a Twitter thread on photographs of Black soldiers in the Canadian official First World War collection. I don’t really remember what I expected to find, but the search was a fairly quick one—I could only find two photographs described as having Black sitters. Months later, I found a third photograph.
Between 1916–1918, three official photographers were hired in succession by the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO). Captain Harry Knobel, Captain William Ivor Castle, and Lieutenant William Rider-Rider would amass a corpus of more than 4,500 photographs of Canadians on the Western Front. I had to ask, then, was three photographs out of 4,500 representative of Black Canadian enlistment in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF)?
In conducting this research (which has been an ongoing project—among many others—since early 2019) I set forth some basic parameters. First, I am only looking at Canadian official First World War photographs. During the war, the CWRO aggregated photographs into different categories, which stand to this day, and are called “prefixes” at Library and Archives Canada (LAC). Official photographs—taken by Knobel, Castle, and Rider-Rider—comprise the “O” prefix. These are the photographs that were most readily used by the press in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States to portray scenes of the war from a Canadian perspective. These are also the photographs that were mounted in exhibitions at London’s Grafton Galleries between late 1916 and 1919. Those exhibitions would go on to travel throughout the UK, Canada, and the US. Finally, official photographs were created to show the official experiences of Canadians during the First World War.
Additionally, my analysis came to only include photographs of Black soldiers that are identified by ethnicity (usually in the title). In fact, these data are based on a keyword search of LAC’s database for “O” Prefix. I used nearly every derogatory and racist word and name I could think of to search through the photographs. It is very possible that Black service members appear in other Canadian First World War photographs, but are not identified through keywords. Searching through 4,500 photographs would be a job in itself, but more importantly, I thought it would be problematic to squint at each face in each photograph and presume I knew the race of each man.
In order to ascertain whether three photographs of 4,500 is representative of Black Canadian enlistment in the CEF, I needed to learn more about enlistment and the Canadian population. The most recent Canadian census taken before the First World War was conducted in 1911. It cites 7.2 million Canadians, of which there were 8,807 Black male Canadians (of all ages). By the end of the war, we know there were a total of 619,636 enlistments of all races. (See Figure 1).
It is more difficult to attain a precise number of Black enlistments during the war. The literature does not agree on this number, with estimates as low as 1,250 and as high as 2,600. I created an average based on three different sources, which yielded the number 1,750 (not the most scientific route in the world, I’ll admit). However, if this number is roughly correct, Black service members account for 0.28% of all Canadian enlistments in the First World War. Since they only appear (by name) in three of the official photographs, they are represented in 0.06% of the official photographs. Indeed, in order to see an equal representation between the two statistics, Black service members would only have to be portrayed in 13 photographs rather than three.
But who were these Black men who managed to enlist in the CEF? We know that more than 600 of them were members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, an all-Black non-combat labour force that was raised in 1916. The No. 2 Construction Battalion sailed to England in the spring of 1917—and in case the amount of racism they faced needs emphasizing, it was suggested that they sail to England on a segregated ship without a naval escort. The Royal Navy refused.
The No. 2 Construction Battalion joined the Canadian Forestry Corps in Lajoux, in Eastern France, in July 1917. A smaller group of 54 No. 2 Construction Battalion members would later travel to Péronne that November.
Black soldiers also found their ways into combat roles on the Western Front. Historian Mathias Joost estimates that at least 30 Black soldiers fought in the famous Battle of Vimy Ridge. This includes Jeremiah Jones, a member of the 106th Battalion who had enlisted in 1916 at the age of 58. Jones was hit with shrapnel during the battle but still managed to single-handedly capture a machine-gun post and bring the gun back to his battalion headquarters. Jones was recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), but the recommendation was disregarded. His DCM finally came, posthumously, in 2010. (Jones’ grandson happened to be in attendance when I first presented this research in Vancouver, BC, in March 2019. That was unexpected and extremely cool)
What do we see when we view the photographs of Black soldiers in Canada’s official war photograph collection? It is important to know that official photographers received very few requests from the CWRO in regards to what they should photograph. Rather than granting assignments, the CWRO gave the photographers a small staff and a car and granted them freedom of movement along the Western Front. Any photographs of Black soldiers were taken on the photographers’ own volition.
The earliest of the three photographs was taken in September 1916 by Canada’s second official photographer, Captain William Ivor Castle (Figure 2). Centred in the frame are two smiling men who appear to be washing their laundry. Indeed, the photograph is entitled Washing Day. Castle stands to photograph his subjects, who are both seated, and his shadow is visible in the lower left-hand corner of the frame.
Washing Day doesn’t appear to conform to the above mentioned parameters of my research—nowhere in the title are we told that the sitters are black. Aside from the fact that the subjects are close enough to the photographer that we don’t have to guess at their race, this information is corroborated by two further sources. Washing Day was included in a December 1916 exhibition of war photographs mounted at Grafton Galleries in London. As the exhibition catalogue tells us, the photograph—retitled for the exhibition Smiles—portrays “Two of Canada’s Black Troops” (Figure 3). The photograph was also published in the second issue of the Canadian War Pictorial, and the caption reads: “Their Washing Day – Coloured Soldiers in the C.E.F” (Figure 4). This time, the photograph is cropped into a portrait-oriented rectangle to get the viewer closer to the subject.
It is unclear how the inclusion of a photograph portraying Black service members was received at the time. As historian Thierry Gervais argues, it’s difficult to know what the consumers of the illustrated press preferred to see. We then must remember that newspapers were a business, and art directors included what would have sold well or gone over well previously. This may or may not be the reason why no other issue of the Canadian War Pictorial portrayed a Black person.
The display of Washing Day in the exhibition may have been Castle’s choice—he is known for having played a significant role in organizing the exhibitions that featured his photographs.
The second photograph, taken in July 1918, is described as: Darkies, Who with Others, Load Canadian Corps Tramways with Ammunition, Resting (Figure 5). This original title has been retained on the LAC website, with a note stating that the language dates to 1918 and is both “inappropriate” and “outdated.” It is very common for archives to retain this original—albeit incredibly racist—language, particularly because the titles we find on the LAC website correspond with the original photograph ledgers also found in the collection.
The photograph shows four men lying on the ground behind a row of 18-pounder shells. Three of the men look directly into the camera, while a fourth hides part of his face behind the shells. This photograph was taken by Canada’s third official photographer, Lieutenant William Rider-Rider. Rider-Rider would go down with the distinction of having taken the most photographs of Black soldiers out of Canada’s official photographers—a grand total of two.
Rider-Rider’s other photograph was taken in October 1918. It was originally entitled Three Coloured Soldiers in German Dug-Out, but this has since been changed by LAC to instead use the word “Black.” It’s completely unclear why some titles have been changed and others haven’t. In my own experience, different archivists have tackled the collection at different times (I was once one of them, and have the proud distinction of having changed the word “Jap” to “Japanese” in one or two of the photograph titles).
In Three Coloured Soldiers in German Dug-Out (Figure 6) Rider-Rider stands above three soldiers and photographs them from above as they grin up at him. Objects are scattered around the opening from which they emerge, including a German Stahlhelm.
Although, as I’ve argued above, Black service members are statistically underrepresented in Canada’s collection of official war photographs, there are some explanations. The first explanation is the most obvious—Canada’s systemic racism caused a disinterest in portraying Black service members in photographs. It was incredibly difficult for Black men to enlist in the war and, therefore, it follows that most photographers wouldn’t care to document their presence on the Western Front. We see this same pattern in the photographic representation of other visible minorities, including Japanese, Chinese, and Canadian First Nations service members (Figure 1).
Further, more Black men made it to Europe (including as members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion) in the spring and summer of 1917—meaning Canada’s first official photographer, Captain Harry Knobel (in service April – August 1916) may not have seen any of them.
Additionally, CWRO head Lord Beaverbrook often lamented how difficult it was for one photographer to document the experiences of the entire CEF. It’s possible that the photographers simply couldn’t justify endeavoring to photograph Black service members, especially travelling to places like Lajoux specifically to photograph the No. 2 Construction Battalion when they were attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps (according to Google maps, this is today about a 6 hour drive). Most of the Canadian Forestry Corps photographs in the “O” Prefix collection were taken after the war, in February 1919, but of a camp at Gerardmer, rather than Lajoux.
And yet, this research continues (at a very slow pace). Perhaps there are other photographs representing Black service members to be found in the official collection, or additional uses of those photographs in the press. Certainly, there are photographs of Black service members to be found in private photographs and albums of the war—a whole other field of research. For now, we can say that if the official collection was meant to be an encompassing visual record of Canadians at war, Canada’s Black service members were sadly excluded.
- Tim Cook, “The Canadian Great War Soldier,” Canadian Encyclopedia (August 2017): https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-canadian-great-war-soldier.
- Mathias Joost, “The No. 2 Construction Battalion: The Operational History,” Canadian Military Journal 16, no. 3 (Summer 2016): 51-59.
- Mathias Joost, “Asian and Black Canadians at Vimy Ridge,” Canadian Military Journal 18, no. 1 (Winter 2017): 45-55.
- Peter Robertson, “Canadian Photojournalism During the First World War,” History of Photography 2, no. 1 (1978): 37-52.
- Calvin Ruck, The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada’s Best Kept Military Secret (Nimbus Publishing, 2016 edition).
- Lindsay Ruck, “No. 2 Construction Battalion,” Canadian Encyclopedia (December 2018):
- James St. G. Walker, “Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” the Canadian Historical Review 70, no. 1 (March 1989): 1-26.
About the Author:
Carla-Jean Stokes has a Masters of History from Wilfrid Laurier University, as well as a Masters of Film and Photography Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University. Carla-Jean won the 2015 Photographic Historical Society of Canada thesis prize for her paper, “British Official First World War Photographs, 1916-1918: Arranging and Contextualizing a Collection of Prints at the Art Gallery of Ontario,” later published in Photographic Canadiana. She has also written for the Laurier Centre for Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Legion and Espirit de Corps magazine, and has given talks on First World War photography throughout her home province of British Columbia, Canada. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Ryerson Image Centre’s Elaine Ling Fellowship for her project, “‘Somewhere in France:’ Contextualizing the Ryerson Image Centre’s Collection of Canadian First World War Photographs.”