The Homefront: Dawson City during the First World War

The echoes of the cheering crowd in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall had died. The patriotic speeches that stirred the hearts were now a memory. The bunting was taken down and the flags and decorations were stored away.

The echoes of the cheering crowd in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall had died. The patriotic speeches that stirred the hearts were now a memory. The bunting was taken down and the flags and decorations were stored away.

Three days later, on October 9, 1914, the volunteers assembled at the mounted police barracks at the south end of Front Street. Wearing khaki trousers and matching shirts, yellow mackinaws and stiff-brimmed hats, they marched quick-step, as they had been drilled to do, down the avenue with flags waving, behind a small brass band, until they reached the waiting crowd at the docks near King Street.

They boarded the steamer Lightning and lined the hand rails along the decks as the crowd waved. With three cheers and a tiger, the band struck up “God Save the King,” and the feisty little river boat turned away from the wharf, churned its way upriver, and disappeared in the distance. The 39 volunteers (11 more would join them in Whitehorse) of the Boyle Machine Gun Detachment were off to do their patriotic duty.

It was a scene that Dawson City would experience time and again as hundreds of men streamed from the community to serve “King and Empire” in distant battlefields. As the distant artillery boomed and machine guns chattered, the lifeblood of the Yukon slowly flowed from the territory. By the end of the Great War (1914-1918), the Yukon would be a withered husk of its former self, drained of its vitality. The war heralded the end of the gold rush era, and defined the beginning of a slower, diminished life that would be the nature of the territory for the next two decades.

Similar preparations were made for the departure of the second large group, the volunteers of the George Black contingent in 1916. The third and final group were those from the selective draft of 1918. These were the youngest volunteers to leave.

Meanwhile, the Yukon ladies shifted into high gear to raise funds for the war effort. Almost immediately, they started a campaign to raise funds for a hospital ship; Joe Boyle chipped in $2,500 for that cause. The Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE) became the leaders of fund raising efforts. Once war was declared, several new chapters of the IODE were formed to join the original one established in 1913.

The ladies were the Women’s Patriotic Service League, The Anglican Church Women, The Daughters of the Eastern Star, and the Daughters of Nippon. Even First Nation members made patriotic contributions. Every event they organized henceforth was designed to raise money for charitable works related to the war effort.

They held raffles, picnics and socials; they organized dances and special events at the theatres in Dawson. A summer fete was held at Government House. A dinner cruise with dancing was offered aboard one of the Yukon River sternwheelers. The community turned out in large numbers to support every fundraiser.

Students participated at all of these; their choir sang, they gave recitals and posed in tableaux. The Boy Scouts collected clothing to send to displaced Belgians. The Girl Guides took drill instruction from “Major” Knight, who was in charge of the Mounted Police in Dawson. The ladies organized Christmas gift packages to send to their men overseas; knitting socks became a patriotic pastime, for which the Yukon volunteers were especially grateful.

During the war, the Dawson Daily News served as the most important conduit for war news to the community. From the day that war was announced, each issue was filled with reports of action on the front and contained stirring editorials. The newspaper also published letters sent home from the men overseas. These letters described their trips to enlist in Vancouver or Victoria, detailed their journeys to England, and related their training once they arrived. Their letters complained about the English weather, the food (there was never enough), and what their comrades were doing.

The newspaper also carried reports of the wounded, captured and missing. The News recounted the heroic deeds of the Yukon men and the honours bestowed upon them. It also carried the sad news of those who died from gunfire, gas attacks, shelling and shrapnel, disease and misadventure.

When Dawsonites went to the theatres, they watched newsreels prepared with special content covering the war effort. Jack Suttles, a Kentuckian and Yukoner, sent to Dawson City copies of films taken of the Yukon Company in training at Sidney during the fall of 1916. As the Yukon men boarded a ship at the beginning of their long journey to England, Dawsonites filled the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) theatre in January of 1917 to view these films.

The sight of the company doing physical drill, dinner parade, bayonet drill, route march and posing for a group photo brought cheers and applause from the appreciative audience. The front of the theatre was filled with children from the public school who sang patriotic songs including “Oh Canada,” “Rule Britannia,” and “Soldiers of the King.”

Even after the war, these events continued. The IODE (Martha Munger Black Chapter) sponsored a special event at the DAAA in April of 1919 showing slides of the George Black contingent training in England. People applauded as their loved ones appeared on the screen. The viewing was followed by various songs, accompanied by Mrs. Alex McCarter on piano, and then concluded with a five-reel movie.

As the war progressed, people in Dawson became involved in various issues of importance. Prohibition was hotly debated, and defeated. Women’s enfranchisement was sought, and gained. As the supply of replacement soldiers dried up, conscription became one of the hottest political issues in the country. Conscripts started leaving the Yukon for the battlefields by early summer of 1918; some of these actually saw combat overseas, and a few of them died in battle.

As the war’s end approached, the Yukon was dealt a terrible blow: the territorial budget was reduced and many jobs were abolished, including that of the commissioner. For all his patriotic service, Commissioner George Black, the most senior official in the Yukon, would find himself unemployed when he returned from Europe.

This and many other stories about the Yukon during World War I will be revealed at “The North and World War I” conference, which will take place in Whitehorse and Dawson City May 9-15.

For more information about the conference, go to:

http://heritageyukon.ca/wwi/north-and-wwi-conference

Michael Gates is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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