February 19, 1917: Pte. William J. “Willy John” Jackson


Date of Birth:  March 29, 1882 at Antigonish, NS

Parents:  David and Mary Jane (Paris) Jackson

Marital Status:  Married

Occupation:  Cook

Enlistment:  August 26, 1916 at Pictou, NS

Unit:  No. 2 Construction Battalion

Service #:  931190

Rank:  Private

Previous Military Service:  None

Next of Kin:  Laura (Francis) Jackson, Antigonish, NS (wife)

Date of Death:  February 19, 1917 at Edmundston, NB

Final Resting Place:  St. Ninian’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Antigonish, Nova Scotia

William J. “Willy John” Jackson was the third of four sons born to David and Mary (Paris) Jackson of Antigonish. The family resided on the outskirts of the town near the beginnings of the Lochaber Road, in the general vicinity of present-day St. Francis Xavier University’s Governor’s Hall. The neighbourhood included a number of the community’s African Nova Scotian families.

Willy John’s father, David, was born at Tracadie.  At the time of his marriage, David was working as a groom in town, although subsequent records state that he worked as a labourer. Willy John’s mother, Mary Jane Paris, was born at Annapolis Royal. Local census records indicate that William had two older brothers, Alex and Norman, and a younger brother, David. On November 30, 1904, Willy John married Laura Francis, a native of Annapolis Royal, NS. The couple subsequently had one son, William David, born around 1907.

Following the outbreak of war in Europe, the vast majority of infantry battalions refused to accept African Canadian volunteers, despite official instructions to accommodate all men who met the physical requirements. After almost two years of systematic discrimination and increasing protest, military officials finally authorized the formation of a labour unit that provided African Canadians with the opportunity to serve their country. Authorized on July 5, 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion established its headquarters at Pictou, NS, occupying facilities vacated by the 106th Battalion, which had mobilized at Truro and was preparing to depart for England.

While African Canadians joined No. 2 Construction from across Canada and parts of the United States, the majority of its recruits came from Nova Scotia. As a labour unit, its soldiers provided support for front line personnel, building roads and bridges—thus allowing advancing troops and supplies to move forward—and evacuating the wounded. A considerable number also worked in Canadian Forestry Corps lumber camps in France.

Willy John enlisted with No. 2 Construction Battalion at Pictou, NS on August 26, 1916. According to his attestation papers, he was a cook by trade. The unit trained at Pictou for about three months, while its recruiting campaign continued. By August 16, its ranks included only 180 soldiers, a slow and disappointing response. In hopes of attracting more recruits, authorities relocated its headquarters to Truro on September 9. The new location possessed a larger African Nova Scotian population than Pictou County, and was closer to the Halifax area’s Black communities.

In December 1916, No. 2 Construction Battalion received word from military authorities in Ottawa that the unit was required overseas as soon as possible. Lieutenant-Colonel D. H. Sutherland, its Commanding Officer, replied that as the unit’s strength stood at 575 “other ranks,” he wished to delay its departure for several months, in hopes of increasing its numbers.

Willy John Jackson never saw overseas service. During the winter of 1916-17, Canadian government officials received an urgent request for steel rails required in France. Two hundred and fifty of No. 2 Construction Battalion’s men were dispatched to load rails along the Grand Trunk sidings in northern New Brunswick. While completing this task, an outbreak of pneumonia occurred among its soldiers and Willy John was among the men affected. On February 11, 1917, he was admitted to St. Basil’s Civil Hospital, Edmundston, NB and died just days later, on February 19. Willy John’s remains were returned to Antigonish, where he was laid to rest in St. Ninian’s Roman Catholic Cemetery. Thirty-four years old at the time of his death, Willy John Jackson left behind a widow and an eight-year-old son.

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