If any Yukon woman stood out in her patriotic activities during the First World War, it had to be Martha Black, the wife of Commissioner George Black.
She not only had the status to be a leader in the community, she had the resources. Many gatherings of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire and other groups were held in the commissioner’s residence, which had ample comfortable space for such events
Even before the war had commenced, she was positioned strategically to influence events. She engineered the formation of three chapters of the IODE, and they in turn honoured her by naming a fourth chapter after her,
“in recognition of (her) untiring efforts … in organizing and carrying on patriotic works in Dawson. The Martha Munger Black chapter commenced with a membership of ten, which (eventually) grew to fifty-six.”
To raise funds, she once sponsored the fabrication of a quilt consisting of squares signed by the many men who volunteered for the George Black Contingent. When it was raffled off, her name was drawn; she later gave it to her son Lyman as a wedding gift, but it is now on display in the MacBride Museum.
At numerous events, she spoke on patriotic topics, and wrote about the same in special editions of the newspapers. When she was abroad, she acted as a spokesperson for the Yukon, championing the country and crowing its accomplishments.
It was Martha, who, in an article in London in March 1917, pointed out that in proportion to the population, the Yukon had given more to the various patriotic funds than any other part of Canada. “Men, women and children have averaged $20 per head,” she said, “which is pretty good when it is considered that we are not a rich people up there in spite of rumor. All the funds have been helped.”
When her husband George and a large contingent of Yukoners departed Dawson City to enlist in Victoria October, 1916, Martha accompanied them, acting as an unofficial den-mother to the men displaced from home and family.
She followed them on to Ottawa in January of 1917. There she overwhelmed the bureaucracy, which caved in to her insistence that she accompany George and son Lyman overseas. The general in command of
Canadian transport asked her if she would have the necessary courage and be willing to be the only woman among several thousand men. She replied: “But general, I walked into the Yukon with thirty thousand men!”
His only and final comment as the lady won her way: “Well Mrs. Black, ‘you certainly are incorrigible!’”
Martha had taken Red Cross training in Victoria before leaving, and became the unofficial nurse for the 1,500 soldiers on board the converted ocean liner on the trans-Atlantic trip to England.
As to how the rank-and-file on board ship regarded her presence, their feelings were best expressed in a rollicking impromptu shanty, written by C.S.W. Barwell, a member of the Black contingent. Sung lustily on deck every day between dashes of salt-sea spray, it showed that Martha Black was far from being an unwelcome mess mate or any damper on soldier’s merriment:
“We have stolen Mrs. Black and we will not bring her back,
‘Till the Germans quit and when the Allies win
‘Till we nail the Union Jack to the Kaiser’s chimney stack,
‘And we toast the Yukon Daughters in Berlin.”
Amid air raids, rationing and loneliness, Martha kept a busy schedule while in England. She spent three months of arduous service in the Prisoners-of-War Department, dealing with lost Canadian mails, delays of prisoners-of-war letters, government cuts to the amount of food parcels, an epidemic of measles (which meant double shift), and two personal attacks of appendicitis.
She filled in the odd hours by doing YMCA canteen work, attending meetings and the investigations of the Women’s Battersea Pension Board, sewing for the Red Cross, administering the Yukon Comfort Fund, visiting wounded Yukoners in hospital and giving lectures on “The Romance of the Klondyke Gold Fields.”
Martha Black gave almost 400 lectures – the majority illustrated, while she was in England. She averaged a daily talk for months, including a three-week tour of Wales, speaking to audiences which numbered from 50 to 700. One day she gave three lectures, which was too much for even her sturdy constitution.
She filled her spare time writing letters to family and friends, and to the Dawson News and the Whitehorse Star. When this was done, she set to work darning socks.
She spoke to the Royal Geographic Society into which she was inducted as a fellow. She visited the Yukon troops at their base in southern England, one time demonstrating her skills with a machine gun (she got a passing grade, hitting the target 64 of 75 times), and joined them for Christmas dinner at their barracks. While in England, she administered the Yukon Comfort fund, buying whatever was needed by the soldiers, from tobacco to razors to socks.
She managed to see many of the sites of London, even attending a session of Parliament. When she and George visited the House of Commons, he, being in uniform, was given a preferential seat, while she was whisked away to a tiny room in which, from behind an iron grating, she was able to view the proceedings.
“‘It’s rather curious,’ she said, ‘how in Dawson you have to protect the women from the men; while over here they seem to find it necessary to protect the men from the women!’”
After the war, Martha had one final responsibility before returning to Canada. She was sent to France to inspect the graves of American soldiers. During her tour of France, she visited cemeteries near the great battles of the war: Poperinghe, Ypres, Bailleul, Bethune, Arras, Vimy, Lens, Etaples Amiens, and finally Chateau Thierry and Rheims. At the time peace was signed on June 28, 1919, she was wandering over Vimy Ridge between the war-shattered ruins.
She noted that the cemeteries of France were growing into fields of beauty, tended by battalions of devoted men and women who volunteered from all services to do this special job.
That job done, she returned to England to await passage back to Canada. George left on the Caronia bound for Halifax, in late June. But Martha was unable to secure a booking to travel with him, and remained in
England until mid-August before she was able to return to Canada, where a remarkable future lay before her.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org