As I sit in my office amidst books and articles, trying to get a clear picture of Joe Boyle’s accomplishments during World War I, one thing is clear: he was Yukon’s most heroic figure. While his accomplishments can hardly be summarized in one column, let me mention some of his wartime deeds.
By 1914, Joseph Whiteside Boyle had already accomplished enough to be a worthy figure in Yukon history. He arrived in Dawson City in 1897 during the infancy of the gold rush, and then left for Outside in the fall to seek investors for his dredging scheme.
He secured financing for a large dredging company, then wrestled control away from the Rothschilds in the courts. In doing so, he became the most prominent businessman in the gold fields. People referred to him as the “King of the Klondike.”
The thrill of being the head of a large dredge company and the mantle of being one of the most prominent figures in the Klondike wore thin on him over the years; he longed for new challenges worthy of a real man. The announcement by Britain of war with Germany and her allies in August of 1914 provided him with the opportunity to prove himself in a new arena.
Boyle quickly conveyed a message to Sam Hughes, the minister of militia, an offer to finance a detachment of 50 men, insisting that the unit would be a specialist machine gun unit. The offer was accepted immediately and volunteers were recruited. Within weeks, the men left Dawson, with Boyle standing on the waterfront watching them disappear up the mighty Yukon River.
His patriotism was boundless. When the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire raised funds for a hospital ship, Boyle contributed $2,500. He was quick to respond to any request for funding our men in service, and he gave generously. He also posted a notice stating that any employee who expressed pro-German sentiments would summarily be fired.
But Joe Boyle wanted to be where the action was and grew increasingly impatient. Finally, in July of 1916, he left town on the steamer Dawson headed for England, ostensibly for business, but he turned his back on the Klondike, abandoning his wife, who never saw him again.
In England, Boyle was appointed honorary colonel in the militia. He donned a custom-tailored uniform and became “Colonel” Boyle. He mixed socially with prominent people, but excluded from active service due to his age, he developed “a withering contempt for military officialdom and the average brass hat.”
So Joe Boyle volunteered in the America Corps of Engineers and was assigned to Russia, where he was caught in the middle of the Russian Revolution. Boyle quickly demonstrated his skill as a leader, organizer, and man of action.
Much to the consternation of the bureaucratic British diplomatic service, he quickly gained the confidence of the tsarist regime and was sent to the front where he began to untie the terrible congestion of the Russian rail system.
He reached Tarnapol just as the Russian defenses crumbled under the German attack. Using authority he had not been given, he was able to organize a temporary defensive line around the city, allowing the Russians to retreat. For that, on August 8, 1917, Boyle was awarded the Russian Order of Stanislaus.
Amidst the chaotic dysfunction of the military, the Russians welcomed Boyle’s confidence, charisma and leadership and accepted his recommendations for creating order in the rail system.
Next, he was dispatched to Romania where there were a million Russian troops and inadequate supplies. There, he found the rail network gridlocked under the incompetent oversight of British engineer-officer General de Candolle.
According to Boyle biographer, Leonard Taylor, “Imperiously, he [Boyle] enforced a new scale of traffic priorities in which the movement of food came first, transfer of wounded second and the forwarding of military stores and equipment third. There was no time for the niceties of consultation. Boyle gave orders and the Russians and Rumanians, seemingly overawed by his presence, ceased their quarrelling and name-calling and sprang into action. And [General] de Candolle never forgave this moral insult.”
With czarist Russia falling into chaos, and the Bolsheviks adding to the disorder, Boyle secured the crown jewels of Romania, which were housed in Moscow loaded them aboard a train, and managed to return them to their motherland as Russia disintegrated. Their arrival in Romania at Christmas of 1917 was a gift to the entire nation.
Meanwhile, Boyle organized and oversaw a network of almost 500 spies. At first intended to harry the Germans, they slowly refocused their attention to the Bolsheviks, who were quickly becoming a greater threat to British security.
It was at Romania’s darkest moment, with a hostile Germany on one side and a threatening Bolshevik movement on the other. Foreign diplomats were vacating the country when on March 2, 1918, Boyle strode into the palace at Jassy and first met Queen Marie of Romania, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
‘Have you come to see me?’ she asked.
‘No ma’am,’ Boyle replied. ‘I have come to help you. And my God, woman, do you need help.’”
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Boyle and the queen became frequent companions, and sometime later, when he was stricken by a debilitating stroke, it was she who ensured that he was cared for during his recovery.
A few days after their first meeting, he was dispatched to Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea, where 70 Romanians were being held hostage in the increasingly unstable social conditions. Boyle was able to obtain their release, get them aboard a ship and eventually return them to Romania. For this he was awarded the Star of Romania and sash, and the undying respect of the entire nation, which referred to him as “The Saviour of Romania.”
Boyle was eventually granted the title of Duke of Jassy and given an estate in Bessarabia in gratitude for all that he had done for the people of Romania.
George and Martha Black met him when he was in London, and Queen Marie praised him frequently for his gallant deeds, but he was in declining health after his stroke. He died in Middlesex, England April 14, 1923 and was buried there a short time later.
A stone marker, a final gift from Queen Marie, was placed on his grave with the following epitaph, one of Boyle’s favourite passages from Robert Service, engraved upon it:
“A man with the heart of a Viking, and the simple faith of a child.”
Every year after that, on the anniversary of his death, a woman dressed in black appeared at his graveside and placed a bouquet of flowers there. This continued each year until Queen Marie passed away in 1938.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at email@example.com