WWI letters detail lives of Yukon recruits

During my recent visit to Vancouver, I was introduced to a man who has a collection of World War I letters. They were written by Norton Townsend of Dawson City.

During my recent visit to Vancouver, I was introduced to a man who has a collection of World War I letters. They were written by Norton Townsend of Dawson City. Norton and his brother Alfred enlisted with the George Black contingent in 1916 and saw service in the final stages of the war.

Their father, Turner Townsend, had been in Dawson since 1897. They went to school in Dawson and were both active in the community playing hockey. The Townsend family was well known around town.

According to census records, Norton was 22 years old when he enlisted; his brother Alfred was 21, but their enlistment papers

state that they were born only four months apart. Norton had shipped out to Victoria in 1916 with the 225 other members of the George Black contingent, and spent the following months, like his comrades, taking basic training at the Willows Camp in the provincial capital.

The 21 letters in this collection date from April 1917 through to February 1919. Most of them are written by Norton to his mother Frances, although four were addressed to his grandmother. The one and only letter written to his father was composed in the weeks after the war had ended.

I also found a letter published in the Dawson Daily News predating the earliest letter in the collection. It was written aboard the SS Canada en route to England in February of 1917 and describes an evening’s program of entertainment put on for the troops on board.

The correspondence contains few details of war. Some of the envelopes that survive with the letters reveal why. Several are military-issue with a stern warning on the cover that the letters may be subject to censorship, concluding with a phrase that states: “I certify on my honour that the contents of this envelope refer to nothing but private and family matters…” followed by a space for the sender’s signature.

His first letters were sent from Witley, an army camp near the south coast of England where the recruits took extensive training while waiting for deployment to France. Norton complained about the snow and cold in camp and acknowledges receipt of packages from home, some containing edible treats. When it wasn’t snowing, it was raining. “Froze half the time and up to your knees [in mud] the rest,” he wrote December 12, 1917.

Christmas that year was celebrated with a large dinner for 150 men, attended by Mrs. Black. Turkey, goose, mashed potatoes and peas, soup, pudding, candy, cake and beer were on the menu that day.

In January 1918, he complained about not having received any letters from home in a long time, speculating that was because of the “Halifax affair.” A month earlier, on December 6, 1917, the Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship filled with munitions, exploded in Halifax harbour, destroying much of the city.

The letters also contain frequent references to other Yukoners who were posted in England and France. For example, Richard Babb and Fred Turner were still missing, he reported May 10, 1918. In fact, both men had been taken prisoner by the Germans March 24 during a massive German offensive.

Norton spent several periods in hospital during his time overseas, once for a case of mumps, he wrote in April, 1918. Communicable diseases such as mumps, influenza and measles were commonplace among the large concentrations of soldiers in the training camps. He commented on the young nurses attending to him and complained that there was nothing to do while recovering except eat and sleep.

In June, he referred to the recent federal election in which Alfred Thompson, the Conservative candidate, won the Yukon seat. The election was controversial because the overseas vote carried the election in Thompson’s favour, and the Liberal candidate Fred Congdon contested the validity of the military vote. “Who ever thought we would swing the election,” wrote Townsend.

August 15, 1918, he wrote another letter home. The George Black contingent, now part of the 2nd Motor Machine Gun Brigade, had just participated in a major offensive at Amiens, France. This attack, referred to as the “Black Day of the German Army” by the German high command, was the break-through attack that ended years of trench warfare.

The Canadians were in the lead formations of this assault. It was the beginning of the end for the enemy. It was also the bloodiest offensive of the war and casualties were very high. Norton blandly summed it up this way: “Well Mother, things have quieted down a bit, but for two or 3 days our boys sure gave Fritz everything he was looking for. The weather has been great and very much in our favour.”

In a letter from Norton’s brother Alfred, dated October 27, and later published in the Dawson Daily News, the war was almost over. “We were chasing Fritzies through a lot of French towns and villages,” wrote Alfred. “… Fritz was going pretty fast so he did not have much time to destroy the houses or put up much of a fight, so we got along with very few casualties.” All the girls and women ran out and kissed and hugged the soldiers.

Norton’s letter expands upon this theme: “A good bit of the time we were just a few hundred yards behind the Germans and under fire at that. The people came out of their cellars – cheered, danced cried and sang all at once. Old women and girls cried and kissed and hugged one till you didn’t know if you were yourself or not. They cut all the badges and buttons off our clothes – stripped us of everything for souvenirs. The cruelties they suffered under the Germans are unbelievable…”

At the time, the Canadians were advancing to capture Mons before the Armistice. The Belgian city had been taken by the Germans at the beginning of the war, and there was symbolic value to recapturing it before the conflict ended.

Norton’s letters continued during the period that his unit occupied Germany after the war. Both he and his brother survived and returned to civilian life in the Yukon. The brothers served in different units but crossed paths occasionally during the war, incidents to which they referred in their letters home.

I haven’t found much about them after their return to Canada. Norton shows up in 1923 working in general merchandise at Keno Hill. Alfred returned to Dawson City. In 1923, he was a machinist for the gold dredging firm of Burrall and Baird Ltd.. In December of the previous year, he had walked to Whitehorse, taken the train to Skagway and sailed from there to Vancouver.

Shortly after Christmas he went to Nanaimo, where he met his bride-to-be, Miss Lucy Pargeter, whom he met in 1919, presumably upon his return to Canada after the war. They were married on February 6, and were planning to return to Dawson “over the trail” in March.

These letters remind us that the war wasn’t about armies and generals, but of ordinary people – hundreds of thousands of them.

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