After the battle of Amiens, France, in early August of 1918, the Allies saw an opportunity to bring the Great War to a swift end with a series of offensive attacks. The proud volunteers from the Yukon played a prominent role in driving back the German forces from territory they had controlled for four long, bloody years.
The ensuing three months were an inexorable march back into Belgium and the conclusion of the war. Yukoners participated in this march, but at a terrible price; the route to Mons represents the bloodiest weeks of the war for the Yukon and is marked by 17 Yukon graves.
The Townsend Brothers described the kind of reception they encountered when they entered villages just liberated from the Germans. In a letter from Alfred Townsend to his family back in Dawson City, dated October 27, 1918, the war was almost over. “We were chasing Fritzies through a lot of French towns and villages,” wrote Alfred. “Fritz was going pretty fast so he did not have much time to destroy the houses or put up much of a fight, so we got along with very few casualties.” All the girls and women ran out and kissed and hugged the soldiers.
A letter from his brother Norton dated November 15 expanded upon this theme: “A good bit of the time we were just a few hundred yards behind the Germans and under fire at that. The people came out of their cellars – cheered, danced, cried and sang all at once. Old women and girls cried and kissed and hugged one till you didn’t know if you were yourself or not. They cut all the badges and buttons off our clothes – stripped us of everything for souvenirs. The cruelties they suffered under the Germans are unbelievable…”
At the time, the Canadians were advancing to capture Mons before the Armistice. The Canadians encountered sporadic fighting with the Germans as they entered Mons at 9 a.m. on November 11, but no Yukoner was killed that day. At 11, the Armistice began and the guns fell silent.
As the Canadians entered Mons, the Highlanders marched their pipe band through the narrow streets. Lieutenant Lyman Black, who had left high school in Dawson City three years before to enlist, was now a battle-scarred veteran of the war; he led the machine gun contingent on his motorcycle through the city square in the centre of Mons.
Back in London, Martha Black was drawn to the window by the peal of church bells, the sound of factory whistles and hands clapping. On the streets below and on the balconies around her, she could see the signs of celebration: little boys tooting whistles, uniformed lift girls dancing to jazz music; people cheering loudly and waving flags from their balconies. At last, she thought, her loved ones would be safe.
News of the Armistice reached Whitehorse at 10 in the morning of November 11, and quickly spread throughout the town: “soon the flags were flying from every flagstaff, and the doorways and show windows of every business house were being decorated with bunting and the flags of the allied nations.”
“J.B. Watson, Dominion telegraph operator, mounted to the cupola of the post office and played several coronet solos, among the selections being ‘O, Canada,’ ‘Rule Britannia,’ and ‘God Save the King.’ In the front window of the dry goods department of Taylor, Drury, Pedlar & Co. a life size effigy of the bust of the Kaiser, the artistic handiwork of Charles Atherton, head of the grocery department… was displayed – and attached to the effigy were two cards, one bearing the inscription ‘Hock der Kaiser,’ and the other, ‘What Shall We Do With Him?’”
Numerous people from Carcross and Skagway wanted to join in the celebration; a formal ceremony was postponed until the following day. Forty three Skagway and Carcross residents arrived in Whitehorse on the train the following afternoon at 4:30. Everybody in Whitehorse was there to greet them amid blowing whistles, ringing bells, and a brass band playing.
A fine dinner followed at the Whitehorse mess house, and at 7 in the evening, the effigy of the Kaiser was carried up the street in a torchlight parade from the Taylor, Drury & Pedlar store, and placed atop an eight metre high pile of cord wood, which was set afire in the ball field.
The festivities then moved inside the North Star Athletic Association hall where a speech was made by Fred Maclennan, followed by local talent performing a number of songs and recitals. The school children concluded with “Rule Britannia,” and “O, Canada,” followed by a dance that lasted until the late hours of the morning. At 9:30 the following morning, the woozy visitors were poured onto the train and sent back to Carcross and Skagway.
Dawson City was caught up in the excitement as well. The town went wild in celebration. The word was out at 9:40 a.m., and church bells started ringing; everywhere, whistles were blown, guns were fired, and every other sort of noise-maker was brought into action. School was let out and children poured out into the streets. They marched about town setting off firecrackers for hours. Everywhere homes were festooned with streamers and flags.
In the afternoon, returned soldiers and others formed a parade, several blocks long, headed by Sheriff Brimston. Then came returned soldiers carrying a coffin containing an effigy of the Kaiser. Alex Sealey came next, carrying an effigy of the Kaiser, then a long line of “women representing all the patriotic societies of the town.” They were followed in turn by blocks of gaily adorned automobiles, then others carrying large British and American flags.
The parade led to the AB Hall where, in a crowded informal meeting chaired by Sheriff Brimston, returned veterans, or relatives of war veterans were asked to take the platform; speeches were given by Colonel Knight, who was the acting chief executive, along with Judge John Black, and other dignitaries.
Once the war was concluded, the Yukon resolved never to forget those who left the territory and died in the service of their country. That resolve continues today.
On May 10, at 5:30 p.m., the Yukon Archives and the friends of the Yukon Archives Society (FOYAS) invite the community to a reception and unveiling of a new travelling exhibit about the Yukon and World War I at the Roundhouse on Front Street. Following at 7, the Royal Canadian Legion will hold a memorial ceremony at the cenotaph in front of City Hall. Everybody is invited to the short ceremony of remembrances, which will be attended by members of the armed forces and dignitaries.
Michael Gates is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org