The Yukon machine gun battery in the fields of France

When war was declared in August of 1914, many men stepped forward to volunteer. Thirty five of them joined the Boyle Machine Gun Battery and left Dawson City together.

When war was declared in August of 1914, many men stepped forward to volunteer. Thirty five of them joined the Boyle Machine Gun Battery and left Dawson City together to much fanfare on the Steamer Lightning, destined for Whitehorse, then Vancouver.

The unit finally crossed the Atlantic aboard the S.S. Megantic, in June of 1915, where they were ultimately posted to Shorncliffe, in southern England. They were still there in December of 1915. One of the men in the Boyle battery wrote: “As a matter of fact, we are all rather ashamed to be here so long in England, but there seems to be no way of getting machine guns with which to equip us.”

In February of 1916, Sam Steele, soon to be placed in charge of the Second Division of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, assured Joe Boyle that he would look after the interests of the battery and that it was soon to be sent to France.

That didn’t happen. In June of 1916, they were renamed the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery, but still remained training in the operation of machine guns, going on marches, undertake other training, and waiting.

Finally, on August 15, nearly two years after the men volunteered, they were shipped across the English Channel aboard the Nirvana, and were soon stationed near the front. From then on, their wish for action was more than fulfilled. In October, they were engaged in combat at Courcelette, in the Somme Valley. The village of Courcelette was a major tactical objective during the Somme Offensive, which lasted from July 1 until November18 of 1916.

Reporting on the action of battle, Captain Harry Meurling, the commanding officer, noted that they had expended more than a half million rounds of ammunition during one battle. He also singled out Privates H.A. McCallum and R.V. Cummer, who, as scouts and messengers, operated under dangerous conditions. They both received the Military Medal for their bravery.

Throughout the winter of 1916 and 1917, they remained close to the front where, if they weren’t in combat, were constantly drilling, receiving instruction with machine guns, packing ammunition into gun belts, doing trench work and cleaning weapons and equipment.

Under constant bombardment, they suffered from shrapnel wounds, exploding shells and gas attacks. During combat at the Somme, one officer was even overcome by the smoke emitted by the machine gun in his emplacement, and had to be hospitalized.

The Yukon Battery saw action at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Private Lawless, a Mountie who had at one time been stationed at Gold Run Creek, near Granville, was killed near Givenchy by shrapnel at his gun emplacement.

A month later, Private Gilbert was killed by shrapnel while taking the village of Fresnoy. The fighting on the line was continuous through June July and August. Captain Meurling noted that more than three million rounds of ammunition were expended during the month of August. By now, Lieutenant William Black, brother Commissioner George Black, had been awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in battle.

The month of September kept the Yukon battery occupied with anti-aircraft duties, then during an operation near Passchendaele on November 10th, a shell hit and buried Lieutenant Black and five other men. It took some time to dig them out. At one point while buried, Black could hear the diggers discussing whether it was worth excavating for any more survivors (or bodies).

Martha Black, his sister-in-law, said that he had nightmares for the rest of his life from what he experienced that day. His replacement was a young Lieutenant Lyman Black, his nephew.

The Allied forces eventually claimed victory at the Battle of Passchendaele, but the campaign, which lasted four months, claimed a quarter of a million casualties and missing.

By this time in the war, the Germans were suffering unsustainable losses. The withdrawal of Russia from the eastern front allowed the Germans to deploy more troops to their western Front. Germany embarked on a final offensive in March of 1918, hoping to break through the Allied lines before American troops started to flood the battlefront.

The German offensive had the Allied forces retreating for a period of time. The Yukon Machine Gun Battery was called into service to bolster the crumbling defensive line. In one engagement with the enemy, a young Lieutenant Lyman Black held the line almost single handed, after Sergeant Blaikie, who was assisting, was shot and killed at his side. Reports after the encounter state that he mowed down large numbers of Germans and repelled their advance.

The Yukon men stepped into the breach, displaying tremendous coolness under terrible conditions. On the evening of March 24, 1918, in the heat of battle, Captain Meurling sent a Yukoner, Private E.B. Mowat, as far forward as circumstances would allow in an car filled with rations to re-provision the machine gun emplacements of the Yukon battery.

Private Mowat proceeded at full speed along the road, passed the gun line, and turned round in No Man’s Land, where he called to the boys to come and unload the cart. At once the Yukon men clustered round it and soon had it unloaded in full sight of the enemy and with machine gun bullets flying thick in the air. They divided up the rations and shared them with famished infantrymen in their sector, who hadn’t received rations for six days.

Each of these battles took its toll on the brave men of the Yukon Company. The ranks were thinned by deaths and injuries. Some were simply lost in the craters of No-Man’s Land.

The former Boyle Company was eventually melded with other units, including the 17th Canadian Machine Gun Company, which contained George Black and many other Yukon volunteers, to form the 2nd Motor Machine Gun Brigade. At the time of this merger, I could recognize only nine names of the original 50 who had signed up in Dawson City and Vancouver.

Four years before, the Boyle volunteers were eager to enter the field of battle. It took them nearly a year to reach England, and another year to reach the battle fields of France, but once they arrived there, they were engaged in one major battle after another: Courcelette, Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, the German offensive of March, 1918, Amiens, and Canal du Nord.

Every officer of the Boyle unit, it is said, and many of the enlisted men were decorated for bravery. During my research for this story, I was able to find reference to no fewer than 13 Boyle men having received the Military Medal.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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