War is declared in the Yukon

"We all had read skimpy reports of European troubles in the Dawson Daily News, but Europe, really, seemed a planet or so away.

“We all had read skimpy reports of European troubles in the Dawson Daily News, but Europe, really, seemed a planet or so away.”

(Laura Berton: I Married the Klondike)

The Dawson Daily News for June 30, 1914 carried a brief article noting the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne. It amounted to 67 words.

This was an inauspicious way to herald the coming of a global Armageddon. The headlines in the newspapers devoted more space to the events surrounding the Mexican Revolution, and upheaval in Ireland, but by the end of July, reports from Europe became increasingly ominous.

On July 25, Austria-Hungary and Servia (Serbia) were engaged in open hostilities. Russia was sympathetic with the Servian cause. If they became involved, Germany would stand behind the Austro-Hungarian position. Britain, though not in a state of war with Germany over the “Pan-Servian question,” placed her fleet on a war basis on July 27.

By July 30, the headlines declared that Britain might not be able to remain apart from the conflict. Across the country, Canadians were abuzz with discussions about the latest developments. Crowds started gathering outside of newspaper offices in hope of seeing new reports as soon as they were posted.

It is not clear how these developments affected people in Dawson City; there were was little commentary in the newspaper regarding public stirrings of concern, yet the News was well supplied with images of all the key players in the developing events. “WAR EXTRA” declared the Dawson Daily News in a headline that filled one third of the front page of the August 1 edition; “Germany Declares War on the Russians.”

Meanwhile, the local news in Dawson City focussed on the arrival of a large contingent of Shriners from the United States. The Auditorium Theatre, today better known as the Palace Grand, had just opened for the season to present movies to Dawsonites. Advertised for the silver screen in early August were “The Honeymooners,” “Prisoner of War,” “Red Saunders’ Sacrifice,” “The Signal of Distress,” and “The Contortionist.” Miss Zella Goodman was the pianist.

In addition to the Auditorium Theatre, there were two other theatres offering the newest in silent film productions. The Dawson Amateur Athletic Association was presenting a drama: “Two Daughters of Eve,” two comedies (“Two Gay Dogs,” “Chumps”), and a Pathe weekly newsreel. The admission was 25 and 50 cents. Professor Carpenter provided musical accompaniment on the piano. The Orpheum on Front Street was presenting three drama and two comedies.

Just as the performance was ending at the DAAA, news reached the patrons that the British fleet had sunk six German ships. Mr. Creamer, the manager of the theatre, projected a slide of the king on the screen, and Mr. Carpenter, who was at the keyboard providing accompaniment to the films, struck the introductory chords to “Rule Britannia,” and the audience rose in a body and sang “until the house shook.” That was followed by “God Save the King.” When the picture of Queen Mary was projected on the screen, the crowd sang “The Maple Leaf Forever.”

The same happened at the other theatres. The Auditorium was filled to capacity. During an interval, a telegram was passed to George Black, the commissioner of the Yukon. Upon reading it, he went to the stage, and after a perceptible pause, eloquent with suppressed emotion, he read the cable. The message was from the under secretary of state saying that England was at war with Germany.

In silence, men and women looked at each other aghast, trying to absorb the significance of the words. According to Martha Black, “In the centre of the house about twenty scarlet-coated members of the Royal North West Mounted Police occupied seats. Two of the men, brothers, were former members of the Coldstream Guards, well over six feet in height, and both with fine voices. They looked at each other, whispered to other members of the force with them, rose to their feet and commenced signing ‘God Save the King.’ The effect was electrical; with one move the audience was on its feet and never in the world … was the National Anthem sung with greater fervour or more depth of feeling than that night in this tiny mining village on the edge of the Arctic.”

As they filed out of the theatres onto the twilit streets of Dawson, men and women, young and old were abuzz with earnest discussion. Though not yet officially stated, the community knew what this meant: that Canada, too, was at war alongside her motherland.

Official notice of Britain’s declaration of war did not reach Commissioner Black until August 6th. Black immediately wired the secretary of state that a force of volunteers would be raised in the Yukon.

The day after the official notification of war, Black placed advertisements in the newspaper calling for volunteers. He and Dr. Thompson were the first to sign their names to the book at the administration building.

Dr. Thompson was quoted as saying: “Our Empire and our Dominion now face the greatest crisis in their history, and I feel it is my duty to be in Ottawa when such momentous matters are to be discussed.”

Howard Grestock, a veteran of the Boer War, was the first to volunteer. Within days of the declaration, he was aboard the steamer Dawson, heading outside to enlist. Grestock later became one of the Yukon’s war fatalities.

It wasn’t long before local business leader Joe Boyle set about recruiting and equipping a machine gun battery with fifty men. By war’s end, every officer and twenty-four of the forty enlisted men were reported to have received decorations. It is said that this was a record for any Canadian Army unit in the First World War. Boyle too went overseas and soon became involved in the most exciting events that any Yukoner was to experience.

The Yukon threw itself into the war effort whole heartedly. Various women’s groups, including the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), the Order of the Eastern Star, The Women’s Patriotic Service League of Dawson and the Daughters of Nippon began raising funds.

By Christmas, various community groups had raised $20,000 for various causes. Throughout the war, Yukoners contributed financially amounts of money that put the rest of the country to shame.

Yukon men volunteered to serve in numbers that dwarfed the rates of enlistment in other parts of Canada. Over six hundred men eventually signed up. Many were awarded medals for bravery in the fields of combat; two Yukoners received the Victoria Cross. Nearly a hundred of these men made the ultimate sacrifice and left behind widows, orphans and grieving families.

The Yukon went through dramatic changes during the war years that would impact the territory profoundly in the decades that followed.

I will touch on some of these events over the following months. I hope you will share with me these moments of remembrance.

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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