During World War I, the volunteers from the Yukon witnessed slaughter and misery on an industrial scale. Month after month, they suffered constant shelling, shrapnel, gas attacks and trench raids.
In the trenches, the men endured rats, lice, poor food, trench foot and other diseases with the constant possibility that a sniper’s bullet could kill them at any time. Yet during the course of the war, nearly a thousand men volunteered from the Yukon’s tiny population of perhaps 4,000. The war experience gave many of them nightmares for the rest of their lives.
A wound was an opportunity to leave the battle line and return to “blighty,” which meant being shipped back to England. Sometimes that was a wish regretfully fulfilled. One morning in May of 1918, Felix Boutin, Kenneth Currie, Sergeant Larry Peppard and Private Morris Anthony were standing together in their trench. A sniper’s bullet struck Anthony in the mouth, knocking out two teeth and exiting the back of his neck. Anthony was sent back to England, recovered from this awful wound and was eventually invalided back to Canada.
Lieutenant William Black, the brother of Yukon Commissioner George Black was a member of the Boyle Machine Gun Battery. During one attack upon an enemy position he gave invaluable assistance to the infantry, working in an exposed position and directing his machine gun fire upon enemy reinforcements. Though under heavy fire he personally worked his guns and attended to the wounded, setting a fine example of courage and energy throughout. For this, he was awarded the Military Cross.
A little after 11:00 in the morning of November 9, 1917, Lieutenant William Black and five other men were buried alive in their trench by the backlash of a shell landing nearby. All of these men were eventually dug out of their temporary graves, and whisked off to a dressing station for treatment. While still buried and immobile, Black listened in horror as his rescuers discussed whether it was worth continuing to dig for survivors. Lieutenant Black was returned to England for treatment and never returned to front line action during the remainder of the war.
Private Bertie Stangroom was a Mounted Police constable in Dawson when the war started. So eager was he to volunteer that he once attempted to desert his post. He was eventually granted permission to enlist. He was later decorated with the Military Medal. In early January 1917, prior to the major Canadian assault on Vimy ridge, he was involved in a trench raid at Birkin Crater. During the attack, someone dislodged a bomb. According to the Dawson Daily News: “With quick presence of mind, he threw a big German on top of it, at the same time holding him down. The German was blown to hell and killed. Stangroom was blown some himself, but the worst he got was a leg full of bomb shrapnel.”
James Murdoch Christie was another Yukoner who was promoted through the ranks to become a legend as a scout and sniper for the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. On October 30, 1917, during the battle of Passchendaele, his unit had to capture a number of German pillboxes in order to take their objective. The communication lines were broken, and his unit was under heavy fire. Lieutenant Christie passed through the enemy barrage several times to deliver vital information to the command. His party took brutally heavy losses until they reached a seemingly unassailable pill-box, with machine guns firing in every direction.
Most of the officers had been wounded or killed. So Christie and two other Patricias, 26 year-old American-born Sergeant George Henry Mullin, and Lieutenant Hugh MacKenzie, of the 7th Machine Gun Company, took the initiative. Christie provided covering fire while Mullin and MacKenzie captured a seemingly impregnable pill box. Both Mullin and Mackenzie were awarded the Victoria Cross; Christie was awarded the Military Cross and survived the war by 20 years.
Not all heroes were so lucky. Sergeant-major Anthony Blaikie joined The Boyle Machine Gun Battery in September of 1914. Nearly four years later, the recipient of both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, he was accompanying Lieutenant Lyman Black in a defensive manoeuvre against a German offensive that had caught the Allies off-guard. During a pitched battle with the enemy, Blaikie took a bullet and was killed instantly.
Lieutenant Lyman Black, who was with Blaikie when he was killed said this about him: “Cool and resourceful, he made an admirable NCO; his decorations were a witness to his great personal courage, which was never more in evidence than on this occasion: as a man he was marked by an unusual honesty and integrity of character. He had a ‘hunch’ before going into this fight that it would be his last.”
Harold A.E. Newton, of Whitehorse, who listed himself as a fur trader, enlisted in Vancouver, November 11, 1914. He was last seen on the morning of April 6, 1916, in a terrific bombardment near St. Eloi, Belgium, during a German counter attack. His remains were never found, but his name is found on the Menin Gate memorial. Located in Ypres, Belgium, this memorial was built in 1927 to remember the 55,000 soldiers who died at Ypres whose remains were never found. Except for a break during the Second World War, a ceremony has been held at the Menin Gate each evening at 8 p.m., when the road under the gate is closed, and a bugler plays “The Last Post.”
The battle of Passchendaele was the bloodiest and deadliest for Yukon men; October 30, 1917 was the bloodiest day. While James Christie was earning his Military Cross, seven others lost their lives. One of them was another member of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. Private Peter Allan was last seen about 6 a.m., just as his company jumped off in the attack on Passchendaele Ridge. His remains were never found. His name, too, is memorialized at the Menin Gate. The other Yukoners killed that day were: George W Cassidy, Frank De Sales, Fred La Blanche, George Eric Otis, Francois Pregent and Joseph Tilton.
All of these Yukon men and many more – a hundred – gave their lives for our country. We owe it to them on November 11, to remember them and the sacrifices they made.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing book about the involvement of the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org