Royal Inn Hospital Grey’s Inn Road, London S.W. August 15, 1918:
“Doubtless,” wrote George Black to members of his family, “(you have heard) that I am temporarily ‘on the shelf.’ I suppose that I should count myself lucky for the cause of my being at the above address is as nice a ‘Blighty’ as one could wish – a regular hand picked one.”
At the time, George Black, the ex-commissioner of the Yukon, was writing from his hospital bed in England, far from the turmoil on the battlefields of France.
Black was one of the early casualties of a military offensive that heralded the beginning of the end of the Great War of 1914-1918. The Germans had made great gains in campaigns in the spring of 1918, but the Allies were about to turn the tide in their favour.
The Battle of Amiens commenced before dawn on August 8 with an artillery barrage that began at 04:20 a.m. Behind the cover of a rolling barrage, the tanks advanced followed by infantry, who took prisoners, cleaned out nests of opposition and held the newly gained ground.
The Canadian Motor Machine Gun unit, made up of Yukon volunteers, was placed in the centre of the front, with the Canadian Corps and the Australians to their left, and the French to their right. In military terms, the battle was considered a success and caught the Germans completely by surprise.
The surprise was enhanced by an early morning mist that obscured the Canadian positions, making it impossible for the Germans to know where to concentrate their fire.
By 11:00 a.m., the Australians and the Canadians had advanced over six kilometres; by the end of the day, the Canadians had advanced 13.
As Black went on to describe in his letter: “It was hot stuff – open warfare – no trenches – fighting in open fields, along roads and hedges, through woods, over hills and valleys – thousands of men – artillery – cavalry – aeroplanes – giving the Hun swine simply hell.”
During the early stages of the advance, Black saw several of his Yukon comrades fall: Sergeant Charlie O’Brien and Private Angus McKellar were killed, while sergeants Daglish and Annand, and privates Sharpe, Villeneuve and Forrest were wounded.
Black didn’t witness any more carnage because on August 9, he received a machine-gun bullet wound to his right thigh. He was removed from the battlefield and transported to a clearing station behind the lines at the Somme, then later to one at Abbeville, then another at Bologne, before crossing over to Dover, August 12, arriving at the Royal Inn Hospital that evening.
Compared to other casualties, Black fared very well. By the conclusion of the first phase of the battle August 11, the Allies had recorded 22,000 dead, wounded, or missing; the Germans had lost 74,000.
When he enlisted and was transported to England, his wife Martha came too, the only woman aboard a troop ship carrying thousands of soldiers. Martha was quickly at his side in the hospital.
She was well aware of the horrors of the war, and wrote:
“When I hear, and read, the stories of the hand to hand fights, of the fearful carnage of the battlefield, of the hanging, dying bodies on the barb wire entanglements, of the starving wounded in the water-sodden shell holes, and of the pain-twisted bodies of the wounded lying for days in No Man’s Land, I wonder how any mere human being can be given the courage, not only to endure, but, above all, to continue in the fight and go forward to meet the most inhuman enemy the world has known since the old barbarian days.”
George’s own brother, William, was a victim of the savagery of Passchendaele, suffering severe traumatic stress. At one point, William was buried, along with a number of his fellow Yukoners. Imagine his horror as he listened, while still covered, to his rescuers, who discussed whether they should continue to search for them, believing them all to be dead!
While George was in the battlefields of France, Martha was waging her own campaign, travelling from one end of England to the other, under the auspices of the YMCA, giving one, two, even three, illustrated slide talks everyday. She volunteered with the Red Cross and administered the Yukon Comfort Fund.
George received notice that war had been declared with Germany while attending a theatre party in Dawson City August 4, 1914. Upon receiving the announcement, which he read to the assembly, the packed house broke into a spontaneous rendition of “God Save the King.”
He wasn’t satisfied to remain in Dawson City while Mother Britain was locked in battle in France. He bridled at being left on the sidelines and eventually enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) June 9, 1916, along with 275 other Yukon men whom he had personally recruited that summer. George’s adopted son, Lyman, was part of that contingent. By the end of the war, young private Black had risen to the rank of Lieutenant and was by the age of 19 years, recipient of the Military Cross.
Black, accompanied by Lyman and Martha, sailed on a troop ship for Britain January 24, 1917, where he was stationed for over a year before proceeding to France March 23, 1918, in command of the 17th Canadian Machine Gun Company (CMGC).
He saw less than six months in the trenches before being shipped back to England to recuperate from his wound, but it was an experience that stayed with him the rest of his life.
He returned to France and Bonn, Germany, as part of the force occupying the Rhine for three months after the Armistice. In the capacity of legal counsel, he also acted on behalf of a number of Canadian soldiers who were charged with mutiny for their involvement in the Kinmel Park demobilization riots. George was outraged at the unfair treatment of these men, a cause he continued to champion after his return to Canada.
A few years later, after being elected to the House of Commons, Black left his seat while Parliament was in session to support one of the men he had served with during the war. Travelling across the country to Edmonton, Alberta, he defended a comrade who had been charged with murdering a man in Jasper with a knife.
Even in later years, he commonly and proudly identified his military service by using his rank in newspaper interviews. After the Second World War, he continued to champion the cause of his veteran constituents, demanding that they receive preference for employment in government jobs.
Black earned no medals for bravery, although he took a bullet defending his country. He was a passionate man, who realized that freedom could not be maintained without an investment of blood.
Black is remembered for his Yukon political career as a territorial councillor, commissioner of the Yukon, and Member of Parliament, but in the military cemetery where he is buried in Burnaby, BC, his remains are marked by a simple stone that states:
C.M. G. C. – C. E. F.
23 August 1965 – Age 92
Michael Gates is a local historian
and sometimes adventurer
based in Whitehorse.