A Dawson girl in the war zone

It is well known that Martha Black took an active role in the Yukon's overseas wartime activities. She helped attend to the wounded, sick and homesick Yukon boys.

It is well known that Martha Black took an active role in the Yukon’s overseas wartime activities. She helped attend to the wounded, sick and homesick Yukon boys. She spoke widely about the Yukon and was even made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

What is less well known is that there were other Yukon women who entered the war – as nurses. One was Mrs. L.G. Bennet, whose husband, a Dawson City lawyer, had enlisted as an officer November 28, 1916. A few months later, in the spring of 1917, she was selling their Seventh Avenue Dawson home, hoping to close the deal by the break-up of the Yukon River. She then planned to go overseas as a nurse.

Marie Louise Thompson, daughter of Dr. W.E. Thompson of Dawson City, signed on as an officer in the nursing corps in London, England on July 17, 1916. She had already been in charge of an American Ambulance hospital ward in France since 1916. She had served in France and Flanders since the outbreak of the war, and in October 1918, was preparing to ship out to Siberia.

The third was Zowitza Nicholas, daughter of John and Jennie Nicholas, of Dawson. John, a barber, came to the Klondike during the gold rush, and operated a barber business at 108 Queen Street until his death December 23, 1917. These facts I was able to uncover from material I found while doing research on World War I. Zowitza, or Zoe, attended to school in Dawson and moved to Seattle in 1913 to study nursing when her parents divorced. In 1918, America was fully engaged in the war; Zoe volunteered to go to France as part of a nursing unit out of Seattle.

At the beginning of August, she had just left Fort Riley army base in North Central Kansas and wrote her mother from New York City. She described the roll-call, constant drilling (just like the soldiers), plus getting her passport and other paperwork in order. Three nights a week, they studied French. She was fitted for her uniform: a dark blue Norfolk suit, blue sailor hat, brown gloves and shoes, which, she was told, had to be worn continually. She looked very elegant in the photo taken of her wearing this uniform.

In her spare time, her passion for travel is revealed. “New York,” she wrote, “is just one of the realizations of my dreams…There are many of our girls who could have come and didn’t. They don’t know what they are missing.” She saw everything she could and still it was not enough: riding the subway, visiting Grant’s Tomb, visiting the New Jersey coast, Edgar Allen Poe’s cottage and Central Park. Next on her list were the Brooklyn Bridge and Coney Island. It was, she said, an education she couldn’t get in school.

She soaked up the atmosphere and her enthusiasm is evident in every word: “New York is a city of such life, and activity, of business; of Italians, Jews, French; of aggressiveness, of boldness, of good will, good cheer; with all and every form of human emotions; peoples, dress, and anything you can ever conceive; all can be found here in this little spot. It’s wonderful.”

Zoe was shipped overseas and stationed at Base 50 Red Cross Hospital at Mesves, France. It was one of more than 100 established by the United States Army to tend the wounded. After the Armistice, she was granted leave and travelled widely through occupied Germany, Belgium and France, a trip she described in another lengthy letter to her mother. She travelled from Nantes to Paris, then Metz, Koblenz, Cologne and Brussels, visiting cathedrals, art galleries and museums. She travelled to Nice with another nurse, where they spent several days enjoying the warm Mediterranean climate, even taking an excursion to Italy by car. She visited ancient Roman ruins and even careened along the hairpin turns of a coastal highway in an automobile, clinging to the road high up on the side of the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean.

But it is the description of her journey from Brussels to Paris by train that stirred my emotions. The 10-hour journey took her through the battlefields of France and Belgium. There, she saw the barren wasteland that had been created by war. She saw countless bridges destroyed by the conflict; she witnessed overturned locomotives in the ditches beside the railroad tracks. She saw the wire entanglements, mowed down trees, and the shell holes, big and small. She saw trenches, trenches and more trenches. Small white wooden crosses populated the landscape, some single, others clustered together. One had a helmet hanging from it.

“It is hard to believe that the mass of stone was once a town or a house or that people ever lived there and worked,” she wrote: “there are rods of twisted iron… and then there is the inevitable pile of stone. Stone and red bricks; perhaps a piece of wall standing, perhaps not, and more piles of stone. Town after town is like this – no people there – not a sign of life…

“At one place I saw a man with a long stick or rake – I don’t know which – digging and pushing and scraping aside a mass of stone. I wonder if he was intending to build himself a home, or if he was only looking for riches that were once his treasures.”

In her letters, she didn’t describe the horrors she saw in her hospital. Sixty years later though, she remembered her work. Many soldiers died of influenza in the closing weeks of the war. “The room was so full of coffins that we had to step over them,” she recalled. “I could never get over the terrible things that happened to those poor boys.” She was remembered as the “Angel of Ward 7” by William Roper, one of the soldiers she nursed back to health the winter of 1918. Sixty five years later, he tracked her down in suburban Los Angeles, to say thank you. She was married twice and continued to nurse until 1979. She was 88 years old at the time, and she lived to be 90. Working in the wards during the war couldn’t have been a pleasant experience, but her travel while overseas could well have been one of the highlights of her life.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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