Yukon Commissioner George Black heard the call to duty and was determined to join his compatriots who were shipping overseas during World War I. The summer of 1916, he was joined by 225 patriotic Yukon volunteers, who, in several shiploads, over the course of the summer and fall, took passage on the steamers for Whitehorse, then on to Victoria, B.C. They were reunited there in October and on January 16, 1917, they departed Victoria for overseas as the Yukon Infantry Company.
Many of these men remained together for the duration of the war. They were stationed at Witley camp in southern England, where they were trained as a machine gun company. They were eager to see action, but they were not called up for active service until March of 1918. At that time, the German army was undertaking a major offensive which, if not stopped, threatened to capture Paris.
Members of the Yukon (Boyle) Machine Gun Battery, which had already been at the front for nearly two years, saw heavy action during the enemy operation as they were called to use their machine guns to slow down or stop the German advance. Young Lieutenant Lyman Black, the commissioner’s step-son, distinguished himself in this battle, stopping an enemy advance by mowing them down as they attempted to move forward. Black was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. Lieutenant Black’s comrade, Sergeant Anthony Blaikie, was shot through the stomach and died while they were withdrawing from a precarious position. Blaikie had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal for his courageous conduct.
By the end of this engagement, the Boyle recruits had been so depleted in numbers that they were amalgamated with the Black contingent, now called the 17th Machine Gun Company, to form part of the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. Together, in this unit, they fought the remainder of the war.
The German attempt to break through to Paris failed, and their army was much depleted by this campaign. The initiative in battle shifted to the Allies in early August when the Canadians, including the Yukon men, made a surprise assault on the German lines at Amiens. The Huns were caught unprepared by the Canadian attack and fell back in disarray. The nature of battle was now shifting from the trench warfare of the past three years, to open-field combat.
George Black was wounded on the second day of the Battle of Amiens, and several of his comrades-in-arms were killed. The day after Black was wounded, Charley O’Brien, son of the Klondike brewery king, and Angus McKellar, a Mountie at Forty Mile before the gold rush, were both killed when a shell struck their armoured car near Bouchoir, France. Three days later, in the last hours of the battle, Marko Milatovich was killed near Parvillers. Called “The Black Day for the German Army,” Amiens heralded the beginning of the end for the Germans.
After this battle, the Yukon soldiers were quickly relocated north to the French City of Arras, where they formed part of the final advance that became known as “the hundred days.” As part of a large Canadian battle force, they fought their way through a series of German defensive lines. First, there was the Hindenburg Line, then the Fresnes-Rouvroy Line, and last, the Drocourt-Queant Line. Behind these defences was the unfinished Canal du Nord, and farther east, the city of Cambrai, a key transportation hub for the Germans. The ultimate target for this attack: the defensive works behind the Drocurt-Queant Line and the town of Dury.
Four Yukoners fell on September 2. Lieutenant Robert Hartman, of the 102nd Battalion, was in charge of two Stokes trench mortars during an attack made on the enemy’s position East of Dury. Sergeant John J. Melville, formerly of Atlin, had already been awarded the Military Medal for his bravery, but on this day he was killed during the attack south west of Dury.
Alfred Clinton Totty, son of an Anglican missionary and a First Nation mother, was with the 78th Battalion of the Canadian Infantry during the attack of the Drocourt-Queant switch when he was killed by a machine gun bullet to the throat September 2. Saletto Michunovich was a miner from 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 on armoured car No. 5792 he was killed when it was hit by a shell and blown to pieces.
James Bow Watters from Atlin fell on September 26. Marshall Stevens, Alfred Cronin and Patrick John Martin were killed on September 27, while George Crisfield and C.J.T. Stewart died the following day. Frank Slavin was lost on September 29 while George Davidson was killed October 3rd. Robert Morton, who was killed by an exploding shell, was the last Yukoner to be lost in battle in the military end game, just three weeks before the Armistice was declared.
The Canadians advanced through Cambrai, Valenciennes, and finally on the last day of the war, into Mons, Belgium. But it was a bitter joy for the Yukon men to be engulfed by the jubilant mobs of liberated Belgians when so many of their comrades had been lost capturing these places in the final days of the conflict. Today, their names are remembered only through bronze plaques in Dawson City and Whitehorse, and graves that dot the French and Belgian countryside.
Make note of this date: May 9-12, in Whitehorse, we will have an opportunity to once again remember and honour these gallant men during the conference: “The North and World War I.” Scholars and local historians, collectors, guests and students from New Zealand, Romania, England, the United States and Canada will all be sharing a wealth of knowledge of how the Great War of 1914-1918 affected the Yukon.
Special events will be planned to commemorate the fallen; an exhibit about the Yukon during World War I will be unveiled by the Yukon Archives, and history-themed dinner-theatre and music will wrap up the events in Whitehorse. A study tour to Dawson will follow to explore the gold rush community and the impact of the war upon it.
For more information about the conference, go to: http://heritageyukon.ca/wwi/north-and- wwi-conference
Look for more information in future columns.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org