Whispers I

I’ve been in the archives. This truly is my happy place. There are few things as exciting for historians as the thrill of searching and finding. And this week I have found some amazing things. You may have to wait for the formal publications to understand the academic implications of this quest but here on my blog I’ll exhale the emotional reaction.

The strongest reaction I’ve been having is that I feel burdened by the sheer number of untold stories. Of course, not everyone wants their story to be told. I understand that. I’m well aware (frustratingly so as an historian at times!) by the lengths people will go to in order to bury their past. I have to respect those choices and those historical instructions. (It’s hard, but I try!) But for others, their stories sit silently waiting. This week I have encountered so many of those stories. They aren’t the stories that are likely to show up in what I’m supposed to be writing about these days but I feel a responsibility to share. I’m not sure yet how many will make it onto here but here goes.

Whispers I

Here is the story of five men: two white soldiers, two black soldiers, and police officer. It’s a story in which we almost sigh with relief that justice was served. Except then the whole context of the story floods in and we realize that the “insignificant” fine at the end was the very least of the life-long punishments these two men received. Most likely members of a segregated battalion, these two men knew that every day was a battle with injustice. I’ve taken it directly as it was reported in the Chelsea News and General Advertiser. 

Blacks v. Whites: Fracas in Elizabeth Street, Friday 22 November 1918

Two negro soldiers in the Canadian Army, William Robinson and Nathaniel Young, were charged at Westminster Police Court, on Monday, with unlawfully wounding John Duncan McLean, of the Canadian Engineers on Saturday, November 9th in Elizabeth street. At a previous hearing evidence of an assault on another Canadian soldier named Gray, at the same time and place, had been given.

McLean, a wounded soldier, said that on the afternoon of November 9th he was outside the Maple Leaf Club, in Elizabeth street, when the prisoners attacked his comrade Gray. They had had a squabble in a public house a short time before about a drink. Witness went to Gray’s assistance, whereupon Robinson drew out a jack-knife and Young a razor and attacked Gray. Witness tackled Young who slashed at him with the razor, cutting his tunic, his pay book, and his left hand. Witness was taken away by other soldiers. He and Gray were sober, but Robinson was drunk.

Robinson said the row started in the King’s Head. Gray commenced fighting Young and he (prisoner) joined in. He could see that Gray and McLean were both “soused up pretty bad” and he and Young went away to get rid of them. They were staying at the Maple Leaf Club, but he (Robinson) and his companion Young decided to pack up and go elsewhere, as they could not get on with the other occupants. When they got outside they were attacked by about forty soldiers and he admitted pulling out the knife but denied using it.

Detective-sergeant Henry Purkiss, B division, said that he was at the corner of Gerald road and Elizabeth street when he heard a lot of shouting and he saw thirty or forty Canadian soldiers outside the Maple Leaf Club, fighting four coloured men, including the prisoners. He saw one of the four knocked down on the pavement and bleeding from the head, and as he went towards the crowd the prisoners were backing away from the Canadians, but facing them. They got into a florist’s shop and witness got in the doorway and prevented the soldiers following. P.C. Hearne came up and they saw Gray outside, bleeding from both hands. He said, “These men have used a knife on me.” Witness arrested the men. Robinson denied using the knife and said “Some guy punched me in the mouth. I’ve not used my knife since I came to this European city.” Both prisoners were sober but Gray had been drinking. Gray’s injuries were quite superficial.

In reply to the magistrate, Sergeant Purkiss said that Robinson had been three years and Young two years in the Army. He had not been able to trace the third negro, who was injured.

Mr. Chapman said it was clear that the prisoners were defending themselves against a superior number of men and, although they had no right to use the knife, he thought the injuries were inflicted in self-defence and with no malice or intent to injure. He thought the circumstances would be met be binding each prisoner over to keep the peace and ordering each to pay 40s compensation to Gray and McLean.

Number 2 Construction Battalion

No. 2 Construction Battalion, 1917, Veterans Affairs Canada