Remembering the fallen of World War I

For Yukoners, the end of the war was a complicated affair

Each year at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, people gather all across Canada to acknowledge and honour those who gave their lives in the service of our country. We call it Remembrance Day.

It is a small token of respect for those who died in the line of duty, but it is only one of the many reminders that are be scattered about our communities.

The remembrance of fallen Yukon soldiers began as soon as the Great War (1914-1918) came to a conclusion Nov. 11, 1918, but for Yukoners, it was a complicated affair. The territory was still reeling from the loss of hundreds of their fellow citizens after the Canadian Pacific steamship Princess Sophia foundered on Vanderbilt Reef and sank that October.

In September of 1918, the Whitehorse chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire (IODE) complained that the names of several soldiers from the southern Yukon had been omitted from an honour roll being set up by the Dawson branch of the British Empire Club.

Several weeks later, on Nov. 15, the Whitehorse chapter was having a temporary memorial cross prepared as a tribute to those from the southern Yukon who had “made the supreme sacrifice.” They planned to erect it in the Whitehorse Cemetery within two weeks.

On Nov. 24, members of the Yukon Order of Pioneers held a memorial service at the Pioneer Cemetery in Whitehorse in honour of both the fallen from the war, as well as those who perished aboard the Sophia.

In Dawson, the aforementioned memorial, sponsored by the British Empire Club, was installed on the wall in the post office. It was a triptych made from material salvaged from the British ship, Britannia.

Included on the panels are the names of hundreds of the volunteers from the Yukon, with the names of the fallen denoted by a small cross beside them. This triptych can now be seen in the lobby of the Dawson City Museum.

On Discovery Day, 1919, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Dawson Aerie No. 50, held a memorial service in the Dawson Public Cemetery, at which they unveiled a monument honouring the six members of the lodge who died in the service of Canada.

A cenotaph was unveiled in Whitehorse in front of the small public library at the corner of Second Avenue and Elliott Street in a somber ceremony in June 1920. Captured pieces of German field artillery were placed at the library a short time later, where they remained for several decades.

(During the 1950s, long after the old library burned down, the cenotaph was demolished and the bronze plaque with the names of the fallen was placed on a new memorial, which was unveiled October 24, 1954, in front of the newly constructed federal building at Third Avenue and Main Street,. This was later relocated to its current position in front of Whitehorse City Hall.)

A memorial similar to the one in Whitehorse was unveiled in Dawson in v1924. The cenotaph, which consisted of a seven-metre-high obelisk mounted on a granite base, had a brass plaque mounted on it with the names of the Yukon’s war dead. It was finally unveiled in a ceremony that September.

The memorial stands in the same general location today, flanked by two pieces of German artillery, trophies brought to Canada after the war. Another trophy of the war, a machine gun, is on display in the Dawson City Museum.

At the Dawson ceremony, the colours of the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade were carried to the site by Lieutenants Phil Creamer and Frank Berton. The colours, which had been presented to the brigade by Lady Perley, in a ceremony in England in April of 1919, were brought to Dawson by the Governor-General, Lord Byng of Vimy during his visit in 1922.

The flags were displayed in the large administration building for many years until they were relocated to their present placement in St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson.

In the meantime, a bronze tablet had been unveiled Nov. 11, 1920 by Yukon Gold Commissioner George Mackenzie, honouring former students who had died during the war. The plaque remained prominently displayed in the school until the building was destroyed by fire in 1957.

In September 1921 another plaque was unveiled in the flag-draped lobby of the Canadian Bank of Commerce on Front Street in Dawson City. The names of three bank employees who volunteered for military service were noted on the plaque, including that of Albert Edward Browne, who had been killed on April 5 1918.

The remains of the Yukon soldiers who died in service are buried in 56 cemeteries on four continents. Most of them rest in Belgium or France.

In the crater-riddled wasteland between the opposing lines of trenches along the western front, men were sent into combat and never seen again. On one tragic day, during the Battle for Passchendaele Ridge on Oct. 30 1917, nine Yukon men were lost. With no remains for burial, their identities could forever have been lost to future generations.

Instead, their names are embossed plaques that line the walls of the Menin Gate War Memorial, in the Belgian city of Ypres (now called Ieper), along with those of five other Yukoners. The names of more than 54,000 of the 200,000 soldiers who died defending the Ypres salient are engraved here because their remains were never found.

Every evening since 1928, at 8 p.m., volunteer buglers sound the Last Post. The ceremony has become part of the daily life of Ieper and traffic is stopped from passing through the memorial. The site has become an important shrine, visited by thousands of tourists every year. The ceremony was only interrupted during the German occupation of Belgium by Germany during World War II.

If you are interested in learning about the commemoration of a family member who died during World War I, there are two places you can access on the internet that may be useful.

You can enter the name or other information of an ancestor into the Canadian Virtual War Memorial database, and find the name of the cemetery and the coordinates of the gravesite.

You may also find more information about the car cemeteries and gravesites at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Let us remember these brave souls.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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