History Hunter: New book honours fallen Yukoners of World War I

The book introduces the story of Yukon’s wartime involvement and describes heroic contributions

The book The Yukon Fallen of World War I will be released at the Whitehorse Legion, 503 Steele Street, on Oct. 25 between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Both Blair Neatby and I, who wrote the book together, will be there to autograph copies at the time of purchase.

“The Yukon Fallen of World War I” is a small volume that contains a brief introduction to the story of the Yukon’s wartime involvement, and describes the heroic contributions to the war effort, both at home, where Yukoners raised ten times the average contribution per capita than the rest of the country, and overseas, where hundreds of Yukoners fought “For king and country.” One hundred of these men made the most precious sacrifice of all, when they lost their lives in the service of the country.

The book devotes a page each to 87 of the Yukon fallen. Where the documentation is incomplete, fourteen others are included in a section near the end of the book. Included among these are five members of the Yukon Field Force that came to the Yukon during the gold rush. During the war, these men endured the indignities inflicted upon them in the trenches and the brutally inhospitable crater-pitted, barren region between the opposing lines known as “No-Man’s Land.”

They died in battle from machine gun and rifle fire, snipers’ bullets, shrapnel, artillery shellfire and grenades. Twenty per cent of the casualties came from various health issues, with influenza and pneumonia being the most frequent killers. Four also died while training as pilots.

The worst day of all for the Yukon was Oct. 30, 1917, when nine brave Yukoners who climbed out of their trenches to fight at Passchendaele, were killed. Tragically, their remains were never recovered, and so they can only be remembered as names chiseled into the marble panels of the Menin Gate in Ieper, Belgium. Five other Yukoners join them at that site.

A similar memorial at Vimy honours nine more fallen Yukoners, whose remains were also never recovered. The remainder of the Yukon fallen are scattered in more than 50 cemeteries on four continents.

I recently asked Joe Mewett, Whitehorse Legion President to explain why the Legion decided to sponsor a book like this. He said that it was a product of the international conference titled “The North in World War I” that was sponsored by the Yukon Historical and Museums Association in 2016. Names of the fallen had been gathered from various sources and assembled in a list prepared by the Yukon Archives and displayed during the event, however the consensus of the Legion after the conference was that more work was needed to make their remembrance complete.

Yellowknife resident Blair Neatby, who served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry for 35 years, was enlisted to draft the biographies of the Yukon Fallen. Neatby has an interest in collecting militaria and documenting geographic features in the north named in honour of Canadian war casualties. I was enlisted to assist, adding my own Yukon-specific knowledge of the war.

When asked why it was so important for the stories of these brave men to be remembered, Mewett explained that the stories and experiences of the veterans of the First world War have passed from living memory, and that now, only through such works as this book will they be remembered.

Veterans of the Great War eventually formed the Royal Canadian Legion almost a decade after the end of the war, which provided them with a vehicle to share their experiences and their memories. Those who had not served could scarcely imagine the horrors that these men faced.

While many of the names can be found on memorials, plaques and cenotaphs found scattered throughout the Yukon, none of these lists is complete. This volume brings together all of the names revealed through research, though more names may be revealed in the future.

Mewett was quick to add that, while there were dedicated units of Yukon volunteers, namely the Boyle’s Yukon Machine Gun Detachment (later known as the Yukon Battery), and the Yukon Infantry Company, which fought as the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade in 1918, there were no such units representing Yukoners in World War II or Korea.

Unlike the modern soldier, who is highly trained and well prepared for combat conditions, the volunteers of World War I didn’t know what lay before them until they went into battle at the front.

It was then, as it is today, hard to imagine battlefield conditions unless one has experienced them in person. When I recently visited some of these battlefields, it was difficult to conjure up the stark descriptions of chaos, desolation and despair chronicled in numerous books. Today, they are represented by markers and signs and cemeteries scattered in quiet suburbs or farmers’ fields in Belgium and France.

Mewett spoke of his daughter, who went on an exchange trip to Israel, where she and other students were greeted by Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns. Everywhere they went, they were accompanied by armed security guards, who examined vehicles before passengers got on board, and inspected buildings before they were entered. This was a shock to a young Canadian who lives in comfort and security in Canada.

Of the Canadian soldiers who serve their country in locations around the world, including western Africa, Bosnia and Afghanistan, Mewett remarked “They do what they do to keep us safe at home.”

He pointed to a poster on the Legion wall which showed photos of all the Canadians killed serving in Afghanistan, and remarked that the first couple of rows of faces were killed while he was there. It’s a shocking reminder of what is at stake when choosing the military as a career.

This book is a reminder of the sacrifice of those who served under terrible circumstances during what was known as “The Great War.” Copies will also be available at the Canada Games Centre before and after the Remembrance Day service on November 11th. The service this year will be an enhanced event designed to remember the Armistice, but also the history of the four years of war that came to an end on that day at 11:00 hours precisely one hundred years ago.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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