This essay is about the single First World War casualty commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Georgia.
“This is not for you fellows, this is a white man’s war.” 
The recruitment of Black Canadians for service with the Canadian Expeditionary Force caused much debate in Canada. Many Black Canadians, swept along by patriotic fervour at the beginning of the war wanted to volunteer but prejudice prevented widespread recruitment. By November 1915 orders had been issued to allow recruitment of Black soldiers; it was largely ignored. Although small numbers of Black Canadians had managed to enlist from early in the war, it was not until after the introduction of conscription that Black soldiers served in any numbers; even then few made it to front-line battalions. The largest group of Black Canadians to serve with the Canadian Expeditionary Force did so in No.2 Construction Battalion.
In April 1916 the Canadian Chief of the General Staff, Major General Willoughby Gwatkin, issued a memorandum that recommended the formation of one or more all-Black labour battalions. On 5 July 1916 the formation of an all-Black construction battalion led by white officers was authorised—No.2 Construction Battalion was the only all-Black unit raised in Canada during the war and, indeed, in all of Canada’s military history.
Notwithstanding the earlier enthusiasm of Black Canadians, recruitment proved difficult and in late-1916 and early-1917, approximately 165 African-Americans were recruited for the Battalion. Amongst them were James Doval Stewart, originally from Savannah, Georgia, and Sylvester Williams, from Harveysburg, Ohio.
James Doval Stewart was born in Savannah on 18 June 1896 to William and Jannie Stewart. Little is known of his early life, or of his sisters and brother. By January 1916 he had migrated north and was working as a labourer in Detroit, when he decided to enlist. He did so in Windsor, Ontario on 26 January 1917 in response to the call for ‘colored men’ to join No.2 Construction Battalion. He was allocated the regimental number 931763.
The Battalion had trained initially at Pictou in Nova Scotia—the province provided the majority of recruits for the Battalion—before moving to Truro in September 1916. The companies recruited across Canada, including that from Windsor, assembled in Truro in early 1917 and the Battalion was formed as a single entity in March. After a period of training in Truro and a final parade in Dartmouth, the Battalion was ordered to the United Kingdom. Even that was controversial. There was discussion that white troops would not wish to be embarked alongside a Black battalion and it was suggested that No.2 Construction Battalion be sent on its own troopship, unescorted. This proposal was rejected, however, and Private Stewart and the men of No.2 Construction Battalion sailed from Halifax on 28 March on HMT Southland arriving at Liverpool on 7 April.
The Battalion proceeded to the south of England, to Seaford on the Sussex coast. It was still under-strength and in early-May 1917 it was re-designated as a company; in that guise it landed in Boulogne on 17 May. Now named No.2 Construction Company (Coloured), it was attached to the Canadian Forestry Corps. The Canadian Forestry Corps was responsible for felling trees and the production of lumber to support operations on the Western Front. Organised into six districts in the United Kingdom (Nos. 51-56) and nine districts in France (Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, & 12), by the end of the war it comprised 101 companies and totalled over 31,000 men.
No.2 Construction Company was employed, largely, in the Jura mountains in south-east France on the Swiss border, in No.5 District. Its tasks involved the full range of forestry work undertaken by the Canadian Forestry Corps and other labouring tasks in support of that work. Two detachments were sent away from this region for very different reasons. The first was sent to Cartigny near Péronne on 9 November 1917 and attached to 37 Company; the detachment comprised 50 men, amongst whom were the most ill-disciplined of 2nd Construction Company. The second detachment came about as a consequence of the belief that men from the Caribbean and southern American states would not withstand the winter in the Jura region. By the time that the men and the weather proved that this was of no concern, decisions had been made and two officers and 180 men were moved to Alençon in Normandy at the end of the year.
James Stewart, being a Georgian, was part of the detachment sent to Alençon in No.1 District. He arrived there on 1 January 1918 and was attached to 54 Company.
Private Stewart was no paragon of virtue: up to his arrival in Alençon he had been in trouble for minor offences on five occasions, accruing five days Field Punishment No.1 and 22 days Field Punishment No.2.
It was at Alençon that Stewart fell ill for the first time in April 1918. On 11 April 1918 he was admitted to the Forestry Corps hospital in Alençon suffering from ‘myalgia’. After nearly two weeks there, he was transferred to No.10 General Hospital at Rouen before being discharged to No.2 Convalescence Depot at the end of the month. After a short period at the Canadian General Base Depot at Etaples, he returned to 54 Company on 10 May. Only a few days later he reported sick again. This time he was transferred immediately from Alençon to No.10 General Hospital, where he was diagnosed as suffering from ‘abdominal adhesions’ and was treated until 25 May when he again joined the Canadian General Base Depot at Etaples. After another period in hospital throughout most of June Private Stewart was attached to 42 Company in early-July and, later in the month, to 43 Company. He contracted influenza just before the war ended and was treated at the Forestry Corps hospitals at Alençon and Conches. Having been discharged on 27 November, he returned to hospital at Conches on 3 December 1918.
It would be a month before he was finally discharged and he did not rejoin his friends in the detachment at Alençon. On 4 December the remaining 135 men of No.2 Construction Company attached to No.1 District had been dispatched to Etaples to proceed on demobilization and, by the time Stewart had been released from hospital, they were in Wales preparing to return to Canada. James Stewart was held at the Base Depot until he was sent to England on 21 January. He sailed for Canada on 23 March 1919 onboard the RMS Empress of Britain, arriving on 31 March. He was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 1 April at Toronto.
James Stewart’s final address appears to be in Detroit. What he did in his final months is unknown. Towards the end of the year he fell ill and was admitted to the Hôtel-Dieu of St. Joseph in Windsor. He died there of pneumonia on 19 December 1919 and his remains were sent home to Savannah.
Private James Doval Stewart was buried in Laurel Grove South Cemetery, Savannah in Section ‘C’, on 23 December 1919. This beautiful cemetery, opened in 1853, was reserved for African-Americans and contains the graves of slaves alongside many of Savannah’s prominent Black leaders. Private Stewart’s grave was not officially marked at first but his mother, who had moved to New York, continued to press for his death to be commemorated by the Imperial War Graves Commission. It is clear from his record that his medical history was examined and annotated and in 1927 his death was recorded as attributable to his war service. His grave is marked now with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone. CWGC records indicate that he is buried in lot 354 but cemetery records show him as being buried in lot 314, which is the location of his gravestone. His gravestone records his age as ’35’ but this is at odds with his service record, where his age is consistently recorded as being based on him being born in 1896.
He is commemorated on page 543 of the Canadian First World War Book of Remembrance; that page is displayed on 17 November. His medals group comprises the British War Medal 1914-20, and the Victory Medal, which were dispatched to his mother, who also was also sent the Memorial Cross, the Memorial Scroll (1921), and Memorial Plaque (1922). The plaque appears to have been returned, undelivered.
James Stewart is not commemorated elsewhere in Georgia. The state’s memorial roll does not include those who died while serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. More importantly, even if it did, his race and manner of death would have precluded inclusion—although the memorial roll includes a ‘roster of colored Georgians who made the supreme sacrifice, or were wounded’, only white soldiers’ deaths due to illness were recorded. For African-Americans: ‘No list was compiled of those who died of diseases in France or the United States, or those who perished in accidents, or from other causes.’ The history of Georgia’s participation in the war was written in 1936—it acknowledges that: ‘All these men too, rightfully should be numbered among those who have contributed all or much upon the alter of patriotism.’
Palmam Qui Meruit Ferat 
(Let him bear the palm who has deserved it.)
2nd Canadian Construction Company (Coloured). (May 1917-October 1918). War diary. Library and Archives Canada.
Bird ,C W and Davies J B. (1919). The Canadian Forestry Corps; Its Inception, Development and Achievements. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
Dreisziger, N F. (30 October 2010). Ethnic Armies: Polyethnic Armed Forces from the Time of the Habsburgs to the Age of the Superpowers. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
Headquarters No.1 District, Canadian Forestry Corps. (January 1917-March 1919). War diary. Library and Archives Canada.
Headquarters No.5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps. (August 1917-March 1919). War diary. Library and Archives Canada.
Pittman, D. (2012). Moving Mountains: The No.2 Construction Battalion and African Canadian Experience During the First World War. Honours Thesis. Mount Saint Vincent University.
Ruck, C W. (1986). Canada’s Black Battalion: No.2 Construction, 1916-1920. Halifax: Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia.
Walker, J W St G. (1989). Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Canadian Historical Review. Volume 70, Issue 1.
Sam Beetler, Laurel Grove Cemetery.
Marie-Carole Gallien for the photograph of Private Stewart’s grave taken during the Act of Remembrance on 11 November 2015.
Sharen Lee, Savannah Public Library, Kaye Kole Genealogy and Local History Room.
Acadia University, Esther Clark Wright Archives for the photograph of the Battalion recruiting poster.
1. (Back) Walker, J W St G. (1989). Race and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Canadian Historical Review. Volume 70, Issue 1. p 5.
2. (Back) It is difficult to determine the total number of Black Canadians and African Americans who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force; an analysis of enlistment records indicates a total of approximately 1,500 men.
3. (Back) Ruck, C W. (1986). Canada’s Black Battalion: No.2 Construction, 1916-1920. Halifax: Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia. p 114.
Gwatkin’s memorandum, written on 13 April 1916, is an excellent example of the prejudice of the day and is worth recording in full:
Memorandum on the
enlistment of Negroes in
Canadian Expeditionary Force
- Nothing is to be gained by blinking facts. The civilized negro is vain and imitative; in Canada he is not being impelled to enlist by a high sense of duty; in the trenches he is not likely to make a good fighter; and the average white man will not associate with him on terms of equality. Not a single commanding officer in Military District No.2 is willing to accept a coloured platoon as part of his battalion (H.Q. 297-1-29); and it would be humiliating to the coloured men themselves to serve in a battalion where they were not wanted.
- In France, in the firing line, there is no place for a black battalion, C.E.F. It would be eyed askance; it would crowd out a white battalion; and it would be difficult to reinforce.
- Nor could it be left in England and used as a draft-giving depot; for there would be trouble if negroes were sent to the front for the purpose of reinforcing white battalions; and, if they are any good at all, they would resent being kept in Canada for the purpose of finding guards, etc.
- It seems, therefore, that three courses are practicable:
(a) As at present, to allow Negroes to enlist, individually, into white battalions at the discretion of commanding officers.
(b) To allow them to form one or more labour battalions. Negroes from Nova Scotia, for example, would not be unsuitable for the purpose.
(c) To ask the British Government if it can make use of a black battalion, C.E.F., on special duty overseas (e.g. in Egypt): but the battalion will not be ready before the fall, and, if only on account of its relatively extravagant rates of pay, it will not mix well with other troops.
- I recommend courses (a) and (b).
Chief of the General Staff
4. (Back) In his history of the Battalion, Calvin Ruck records 163 men recruited from the United States. Thirteen men from Georgia are on that roll, most of whom were working in Detroit and enlisted in Windsor, Ontario:
931822 Private John Baker, Atlanta
931693 Private Benjamin Barnes, Macon
931640 Private Cornelius J. Brooks, Macon
931689 Private William D. Garey, Macon (recorded by Ruck as “Gatey’)
931619 Sergeant Curry Carter Hemphill, Atlanta
931675 Private Harry Hunter, Gainsville
931761 Private Obediah Johnson, Jackson
931810 Private James Simmons, Atlanta (recorded by Ruck as ‘Simmonds’)
931763 Private James Doval Stewart
931836 Private Harry Franklin Suttles, Atlanta (recorded by Ruck as ‘Syttles’)
931706 Private Jesse White, Atlanta
931796 Private Eugene Williams, Atlanta
931775 Private Frank Williams, Atlanta
5. (Back) 931798 Private Sylvester Williams died on 4 August 1919 of tuberculosis. He is buried at Miami Cemetery, Corwin, Ohio.
6. (Back) Gwatkin, W. (21 February 1917). Memo to the Naval Secretary Interdepartmental Committee. Military Secretary Interdepartmental Committee.
7. (Back) Although recent common usage omits ‘(Coloured)’, it is evident from contemporary records (unit and formation war diaries) and the 1964 official history of the CEF, that this is the unit’s correct title.
8. (Back) For a history of the Canadian Forestry Corps, albeit that it does not mention the contribution of No.2 Construction Company, see: Bird, C W and Davies, J B. (1919). The Canadian Forestry Corps; Its Inception, Development and Achievements. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
9. (Back) Headquarters No.5 District, Canadian Forestry Corps. (August 1917-March 1919). War diary. November 1917, p 3. Library and Archives Canada.
10. (Back) Dreisziger, N F. (30 October 2010). Ethnic Armies: Polyethnic Armed Forces from the Time of the Habsburgs to the Age of the Superpowers. pp 188-191. Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
11. (Back) Ibid. pp 191-192.
12. (Back) Headquarters No.1 District, Canadian Forestry Corps. (January 1917-March 1919). War diary. January 1918, p 3. Library and Archives Canada.
13. (Back) Both degrees of punishment involved hard-labour, stoppage of pay and confinement. In addition, Field Punishment No.1 included a period of two hours per day (but not for more than three days in four) fettered and secured to a fixed object. Field Punishment No.2 removed the requirement to be secured to a fixed object.
14. (Back) Myalgia—muscle pain that is a symptom of many diseases and disorders.
15. (Back) Abdominal adhesion—bands of fibrous tissue formed between abdominal tissues and organs.
16. (Back) Laurel Grove Cemetery (Colored), Savannah, Georgia. (August 1914-February 1926). Keeper’s Record Book. Volume 6. p 125.
17. (Back) The CWGC website and: Stewart, James D. War Graves Registry: Circumstances of Death Records. Library and Archives Canada.
18. (Back) Toomey, J M, (1936). Georgia’s Participation in the World War and The History of the Department of Georgia, The American Legion. Macon: J W Burke Co.
19. (Back) Ibid.
20. (Back) Ibid.
21. (Back) Ibid. This motto appears on the coat of arms of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson—it appears also on his monument in Trafalgar Square, London—and, from 1908, has been the motto of the University of Southern California.
2 thoughts on “Private James Doval Stewart”
Thank you so much for this. I am reading it again after many years. In 2016 we launched a 100Th Anniversary of No 2 Construction Bn exhibit and toured it across Canada and to Washington DC, We just launched a website and plan to share Mr Stewarts story. Bravo well done.
Hi Kathy, thanks for the comment. My apologies for the slow reply. I have been meaning to email you for years about No. 2 Construction Battalion/Company but another long-running project has got in the way. I’ll drop you a note vis the website in the next week or so. Please use this material about Pte Stewart as you see fit.