Four brave Yukon soldiers were killed 99 years ago during their march toward Cambrai, France as the Canadians advanced into Belgium during the final days of the First World War.
Saletto Michunovich was a miner back in the Yukon. Born in Montenegro, he volunteered as a member of the George Black Contingent and was later transferred to the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. While acting as a gunner in an armoured car during the attack North of Villers-les-Cagnicourt, France, the twenty-eight year-old Michunovich was killed when his car was hit by a shell and blown to bits.
Michunovich lies buried in Vis-En-Artois British Cemetery, one of 3,800 men buried there who died during the Great War.
A few kilometres to the west is the grave of John J. Melville, formerly of Atlin. Melville was killed instantly when hit by a spray of machine gun bullets. He was leading a company of Lewis gunners from the 72nd Battalion to find suitable positions west of Dury when he died.
The Dury Mill British Cemetery is located in a farmer’s field at the end of a dirt track a half kilometre north of a main road that links Arras with Cambrai. It contains the graves of two Yukon men who were killed on that dreadful day.
One was Lieutenant Robert Hartman. Serving in the 102nd Battalion, Hartman “was in charge of two Stokes trench mortars during an attack made on the enemy’s position East of Dury, when he was severely wounded in both legs by enemy machine gun bullets. Whilst a comrade was in the act of dressing him, a shell landed almost on top of them, killing both instantly.”
Buried next to Hartman was Alfred Clinton Totty, a young man who had just turned 21 years of age a month earlier. Totty was the son of Reverend Benjamin Totty, an Anglican missionary located at Moosehide, a short distance downriver from Dawson City, and his wife Selina, daughter of Al Mayo and his First Nation wife.
Alfred Totty had been born at Forty Mile in 1897 and received his early education in the school that his father taught in. He was later sent out to Victoria to continue his studies. At the time of his enlistment, he was working in the Winnipeg post office.
Totty was short and stocky with black hair and brown eyes. He enlisted in January of 1918 under the Military Service Act. His older brother, Elliott, was already in the in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Alfred joined the 78th Battalion in the field on Aug. 13, just after the battle of Amiens.
On Sept. 2, the unit Totty served in had penetrated the Drocourt-Quéant switch of the German Hindenburg Line, on the road between Arras and Cambrai. They were held up by heavy machine gun fire around Dury Mill when he was killed by an enemy bullet to the throat.
In a letter to Reverend Totty some months after the end of the war, the Chaplain for the 78th Battalion wrote that Alfred had been buried in the Dury Mill Cemetery two days after he was killed, along with fifty-one of his comrades from the same battalion.
Two years later, on the anniversary of his death, Reverend Totty visited his son’s grave site under the auspices of the Salvation Army. He took the train from Arras and then walked to the cemetery. As he later wrote in a letter to the Dawson Daily News, it was difficult to explain his feelings as he approached the cemetery for the first time.
Before him was a cluster of crosses set in a farmer’s field. Alfred’s grave was one of 335 resting at this inconspicuous location. The rows of wooden crosses were slightly elevated above the paths between them. No grass had grown in, nor did any flowers bloom at the place where this young man was buried. At some time, perhaps a year earlier, someone had visited the site as there were one or two faded wreaths, but there was no evidence that anyone had visited the cemetery since it had been tidied up two or three months before.
The nearest buildings could be seen in the distance in the village of Dury. The only people near him were working in the fields. Benjamin searched the grave markers until he found the one upon which the name Totty was engraved.
Tears filled his eyes as he fell to his knees. He poured out his soul to God, he wrote, “with thankfulness for having brought me at last so very near our dear son Alfred. Determined not to give way to undue grief, I rose from my knees and, for two or three hours, attended to what I wished to do.”
Onto the wooden cross, which bore only Alfred’s name, rank, battalion, and date of death, Reverend Totty screwed a small bronze memorial plate.
Near the cemetery, Benjamin Totty could see the barbed wire of a prisoner of war enclosure, which had vanished by the time he visited the gravesite again a few months later. Lying nearby was the barrel of a rifle with the bayonet still fixed in place. Just outside the cemetery he found a rusting German helmet, and in a nearby lane, a British one. On the road leading to Dury were the remnants of a gun carriage.
The reverend found a bullet in the cemetery, which he took away as a memento of the visit to his son’s grave, as well as the butt of a British rifle. Finding no place to take shelter for the night, he slept in a haystack eight kilometres from the cemetery, near the train station, before returning to Arras the following day.
Along the way, he saw a scattering of blue and white flowers mingled with red poppies at the side of the road. In his letter, he wrote: “I imagined myself gathering a bunch of these, the emblem of the colors of that flag for which the brave boys … had given their lives; I wished to gather a bunch and take them to the dear ones at home far away.”
Alfred Totty remains buried near Dury. It is unlikely that he has had many visits during the intervening century, but perhaps there is comfort in his being interred next to another fallen comrade from the Yukon.
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.