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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Are they coming?

One of COVID-19’s big economic questions is whether it will prompt a… Continue reading

Yukon MP Larry Bagnell, along with Yukon health and education delegates, announce a new medical research initiative via a Zoom conference on Jan. 21. (Screen shot)
New medical research unit at Yukon University launched

The SPOR SUPPORT Unit will implement patient-first research practices

Yukon First Nation Education Directorate members Bill Bennett, community engagement coordinator and Mobile Therapeutic Unit team lead, left, and Katherine Alexander, director of policy and analytics, speak to the News about the Mobile Therapeutic Unit that will provide education and health support to students in the communities. (yfned.ca)
Mobile Therapeutic Unit will bring education, health support to Indigenous rural students

The mobile unit will begin travelling to communities in the coming weeks

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment in Faro photgraphed in 2016. Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old building currently accommodating officers. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Faro RCMP tagged for new detachment

Faro will receive a new RCMP detachment in 2022, replacing the decades-old… Continue reading

In a Jan. 18 announcement, the Yukon government said the shingles vaccine is now being publicly funded for Yukoners between age 65 and 70, while the HPV vaccine program has been expanded to all Yukoners up to and including age 26. (1213rf.com)
Changes made to shingles, HPV vaccine programs

Pharmacists in the Yukon can now provide the shingles vaccine and the… Continue reading

Parking attendant Const. Ouellet puts a parking ticket on the windshield of a vehicle in downtown Whitehorse on Dec. 6, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is hoping to write of nearly $300,000 in outstanding fees, bylaw fines and court fees, $20,225 of which is attributed to parking fines issued to non-Yukon license plates. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City of Whitehorse could write off nearly $300,000

The City of Whitehorse could write off $294,345 in outstanding fees, bylaw… Continue reading

Grants available to address gender-based violence

Organizations could receive up to $200,000

In this illustration, artist-journalist Charles Fripp reveals the human side of tragedy on the Stikine trail to the Klondike in 1898. A man chases his partner around the tent with an axe, while a third man follows, attempting to intervene. (The Daily Graphic/July 27, 1898)
History Hunter: Charles Fripp — gold rush artist

The Alaskan coastal town of Wrangell was ill-equipped for the tide of… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Most Read