It’s a long way to dear
It’s a long way to go;
It’s a long way to golden Yukon –
To the homeland of
You may sing of Tipperary.
Strand and Leicester Square –
It’s a longer mush to
But my heart’s right there.
There is something about mustering for “King and Country” that stirs a nascent lyrical instinct of the heart in men and women when a nation goes to war.
The two stanzas above, which were sung to the tune of “It’s a Long way to Tipperary,” were composed a few weeks after war was declared by Canada, against Germany, in August, 1914. The words were penned by John Dines, who was referred to in the Dawson Daily News as Dawson’s troubadour. When not working for the Dawson City Fire Department, he was a musician and band leader who performed and entertained for dances in Dawson.
The Boyle detachment was sponsored by mining millionaire Joe Boyle and was to be sent overseas as a unit to fight in a machine gun battery. The detachment already had a mascot, a shaggy-haired hound named Jack; now they had a rousing song to “sing with zest when they sit about the campfires on the way to Berlin.”
The Great War had a catalytic effect upon the artistic endeavours of many Yukon poets and troubadours. These composers created lively pieces to perform at social events and fundraisers for the Patriotic Fund, the Yukon Comfort Fund, and various other charitable wartime causes.
In the fall of 1915, the Whitehorse chapter of the International Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE), received a hundred copies of the words of a song written by George Warnicker of Vancouver. It was titled “Why Don’t You Wear a Uniform?” and its obvious intent was to shame young fit men into volunteering in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Its effect upon the ears of the Whitehorse men who read the words or heard the song is not known, but a hundred or so men from the southern Yukon eventually enlisted.
When the men of the George Black contingent were preparing to leave Dawson in October of 1916, a gathering was held in the Moose Hall the evening of October 7. Stirring patriotic songs were sung by the community; popular favourites at the time included “Oh Canada,” “The Maple Leaf Forever,” and “Rule Britannia.” The latter song acknowledged that Canada was still considered to be part of the British Empire. But the hit of the evening, according to the newspaper, was little Gordon McKeen when he performed his own composition titled “The Yukon Boys Will Surely Win Where the English Channel Flows.”
Jack Suttles, an American from the Klondike, had once been a member of a minstrel group, and had toured the continent before coming north. His name appears in the Dawson Daily News a number of times with reference to his musical and cinematographic creations. In May of 1916, he created the song titled “Life Along the Yukon,” whose lyrics were enough to instill homesickness in the heartiest Yukon soldiers:
You may talk about your rivers, from the Volga to the Rhine.
But of all the pictured places, there is none of them like mine.
Where the mighty Yukon
River is flowing to the sea
Life along the Yukon is
good enough for me.
The tune continues for several more verses, but you get the idea. In early December, 1916, Willie Chisholm, described as one of the Yukon’s most noted poets, wrote a letter to the Dawson Daily News, portraying in verse the daily routine at the Willows Camp in Victoria. This was where the men were receiving training before heading overseas as an infantry company.
Marie Joussaye Fotheringham, whose husband, a former Mountie, had enlisted with the George Black contingent, compiled her own literary work into a small booklet of poems titled “Selections from Anglo Saxon Songs.” The booklet sold for a dollar a copy, and half the proceeds were donated “to provide Field Comforts for our Yukon Soldiers at the Front.” All of the men who enlisted were to receive a free copy from the Women’s Protective League in Dawson.
Fotheringham was no novice to the literary establishment; she had already published a book of poems, including her most well-known work, Only a Working Girl. The Canadian Encyclopedia online describes her as Canada’s first working-class poet. Among her Anglo Saxon verses was “Good Luck to the Yukon Contingent.” She gathered over 200 four-leaf clovers from the parade grounds of Minto Park in Dawson. Each was carefully mounted on cards bearing the aforementioned poem, which included the following:
And so I am sending the token,
Rich with their magic charm,
Straight from the heart
of the Yukon,
To guard you and keep
you from harm.
We feel that your sturdy
Your courage tried and true,
With the luck of the
Will carry you safely through.
In January, 1917, Martha Black accompanied her husband overseas, serving as first-aid attendant to the men aboard the troop ship the S.S. Canada. Charles Sedley Barwell, with the Yukon Infantry Company, created the following impromptu shanty, which was sung lustily on deck between dashes of salt-sea spray, demonstrating that the one and only lady voyager among the 1500 passengers was far from being an unwelcome mess mate or any damper on the soldiers’ merriment:
We have stolen Mrs. Black and we will not bring her back,
‘Till the Germans quit and when the Allies win
‘Till we nail the Union Jack to the Kaiser’s chimney stack,
And we toast the Yukon Daughters in Berlin.
The only poet who did not contribute any verse that made reference to Dawson City or the Klondike was the world famous Bard of the Yukon, Robert W. Service, who served as a journalist, then as an ambulance driver during the war. The closest he came to mentioning the territory was in the poem “The Man From Athabasca.” It was about a man from the Canadian north, who yearned for home, and charmed his fellow soldiers with stories of his life in the northland. Service’s poems were published in Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. It became a best seller that topped the international book sales for many months.
Learn more about Robert Service and his wartime poetry 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:
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. He is currently writing a book on the Yukon in World War I. You can contact him at email@example.com