Armistice for World War I was declared at 11:00 a.m., November 11, 1918. The guns were silenced after more than four years of slaughter and depletion.
We are able to trace the progress of one unit of Yukon soldiers up to this moment, and beyond, through letters, newspaper accounts and official war records. The majority of the contingent that accompanied Yukon Commissioner George Black to enlistment in the summer and fall of 1916 remained together as the Yukon Infantry Company, and then as the 17th Machine Gun Company. Eventually, after being shipped to the front, they were amalgamated with other units to form the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
After the war ended, these men became part of the force of occupation that entered Germany. Instructed to be on their best behavior when they were an occupying force, they crossed the Rhine River on December 10 and entered Bonn four days later.
The post-war months took more victims. Yukoner Robert McCollom died of pneumonia in Bonn, in January of 1919. John Pochack succumbed to tuberculosis of the lung in March. Hugh John McDonald, the son of Reverend Robert McDonald, the early Anglican missionary, died in February, while Frank McAlpine, once a member of the first wholly elected Yukon territorial council, passed away in April. William Williams, who came from Whitehorse, died as well.
The 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade, including many Yukon members, were returned to Seaford, England on the SS Dieppe, March 7, 1919 where, on April 3, Lady Perley, wife of Canada’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, presented the King’s and the regimental colours to the Brigade. Mrs. Black, using funds from the Yukon Comfort Fund, and various Yukon branches of the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE), had commissioned the fabrication of the regimental colours for the unit. Lyman Black, son of commissioner and Mrs. Black, was one of the colour bearers.
A week later, on April 11, the brigade, taking the colours with them, boarded the SS Olympic and sailed for Canada. The colours are now on display in St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Dawson City.
The Yukon soldiers overseas and the community back home had long been fascinated by German trophies, some of which were shipped back to Dawson and displayed in shop windows. Both George and Martha Black pursued acquiring pieces of German ordnance back to the Yukon as reminders of the war. A German howitzer and trench mortar were brought to Whitehorse in 1920, where they were displayed in front of the community library for many years.
Dawson was the recipient of two German field pieces, which still flank the cenotaph just north of the Dawson City Museum, while two captured machine guns are now on display in the Dawson Museum.
George Black, who was assigned legal duties associated with the defence of soldiers charged with mutiny during the Kinmel Park camp riots in Wales, did not return to Canada with his men. By August of 1919, however, he was back in the Yukon to celebrate the return of the veterans to the northland.
This post-war era became a period of commemoration. On August 17, 1919, the Eagles Dawson Aerie No. 50 unveiled a large marker in the public cemetery that honoured the six lodge members who lost their lives during the war. The Discovery Day issue of the Dawson Daily News was filled with articles about the war, including the names of more than 700 of those who served Canada, or other countries in the Allied cause.
In Whitehorse the following June, a memorial was unveiled in front of the public library commemorating the fallen from the southern end of the territory. A few months later, Gold Commissioner Mackenzie unveiled a bronze tablet in the Dawson Public School at 2 p.m. on November 11, 1920. Upon it were the names of students from both Dawson schools who were killed during the war: Stuart Ross Cuthbert, Donald Chester Davis, Francis E. Gane, Oswald Grant, Harry McLennan, Charles Thomas O’Brien, George Vail Raymond and Frank C. Slavin. The plaque was inscribed by Dawson jeweler Charles Jeanneret:
“To sometime students in the Dawson schools who gave their lives in the Great War, this tablet was erected by their fellow pupils on November 11, 1920.”
“Greater love hath no man than this.”
On September 17, 1921, another plaque was unveiled in the flag-draped lobby of the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Dawson, bearing the names of the three employees of the bank who enlisted in the war effort: Lieutenant Albert Edward Browne, who was killed April 5, 1918, John I. Miller and Frank H. Thompson. Also inscribed on the large plaque was the following inscription: “In memory of the 1,701 men of the Canadian Bank of Commerce who served in the Great War, 1914-1918.”
The Great War Veterans Association of Dawson was preoccupied with the immediate needs of the returned veterans, but by 1923, they were able to turn their attention to the act of commemoration. A fund of $2,700 was raised by public subscription. Consisting of a granite obelisk mounted on a granite base seven metres high, the memorial was unveiled on a cool windy day in September of 1924. Attached to its base was a bronze plaque with the names of 71 fallen Yukon men that had been compiled locally by Arthur Coldrick, and then verified in Ottawa. The obelisk was draped with two large Union Jacks, and guarded by four returned soldiers, standing at the four corners.
Over the years, the memories of the war faded, the names and faces of the fallen blurred, and the war veterans, bent by age, passed away, one by one. Only these plaques and monuments, trophies and flags remain to keep the memory of the Great War alive. Of the more than 900 brave Yukon souls who enlisted, 10 per cent of them remain buried in the cemeteries of France, Belgium and England.
The Yukon that the veterans returned to had been diminished; many soldiers never returned. The sinking of the Princess Sophia, on October 25, 1918, took hundreds more. The era of the Klondike Gold Rush was over, leaving a tiny population in this remote outpost in the far northwest corner of the country.
This and many other stories about the Yukon during World War I that will be revealed at “The North and World War I” conference, which will take place in Whitehorse and Dawson City from May 9-15.
For more information about the conference, go to: http://heritageyukon.ca/wwi/north-and-wwi-conference
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 firstname.lastname@example.org