The men recruited by Joe Boyle in the Yukon in 1914 finally entered the field of battle in Belgium in August of 1916. Now renamed the Yukon Machine Gun Battery, they were designated “E” Battery of the 1st Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.
They immediately took up position on gun emplacements in the heart of the action. What followed was regular duty at the front, where they provided direct fire and barrage support along the Ypres (Belgium) Salient — a tiny piece of northwestern Belgium that included the town of Ypres, still held by the Allies, and protruded into the German line.
Over the next two months, they alternated between billets and the front line. Behind the lines they rested and trained, and cared for their equipment. Much time was spent at gun instruction, gun practice and filling machine gun belts. On Sept. 16, they covered a raiding party that penetrated enemy lines in a night raid. On Sept. 22, they opened fire on an enemy working party. “Enemy machine guns tried to locate our positions but failed,” reported the entry in the battery war diary for that day.
On Oct. 21, the Yukon Battery, now attached to the 4th Canadian Division, became involved in the assault of Regina Trench (named Staufen Riegel by the Germans), a lengthy enemy trench system that was positioned behind the devastated French village of Courcelette on the Somme battlefield.
According to historian Tim Cook: “The Somme battlefield was a wasteland of ruined farmers’ fields; scummy, water-filled shell holes; and acres of unburied corpses…. Not a single metre of the war zone had escaped being chewed up by artillery fire…. The mixture of blackened flesh and broken bones with thousands of tonnes of metal and shattered structures created a nightmare landscape.”
“The battle-fields are indescribable,” noted one witness. “What villages there were, are as flat as ploughed fields, and most certainly the country is one of desolation. Not a tree, but occasionally the stump of one to accentuate the barrenness, and at night when it is lit up by the flames and flashes of the guns, it leaves the impression of a very modern hell.”
It was this shell-blasted wasteland that they sought to capture. The attack commenced at six minutes after noon with a heavy barrage. The Yukon Battery was positioned parallel to Sugar Trench and provided heavy barrage support. At first, it was an all-out burst of intense fire from each machine gun that lasted for 20 minutes, followed by a reduced rate of 100 rounds per minute, and then slackened to 50 rounds per minute. The pace of firing varied but continued throughout the afternoon and overnight.
The Regina Trench was pounded into oblivion by the artillery barrage, which was supported by the carefully planned machine gun barrage. Behind the creeping barrage, Canadian infantry were able to advance and take the German positions. A curtain of lead from Canadian machine gun fire effectively repelled a counterattack by the Germans. The machine gunners were not so much trying to hit specific targets as they were trying to drench the area with bullets, thus forcing the enemy to take cover while Canadian troops advanced. Those members of each gun crew not actively firing their weapon were kept busy bringing a steady supply of ammunition to the emplacements.
So intense was the rate of fire by the Yukon Battery that one soldier, Frank McAlpine, was sent to hospital, overcome by the noxious gasses emitted by the machine gun during the continuous firing. The Yukoners were lucky, having come in at the very end of the Battle of the Somme, an offensive that started four months earlier and gained little at great expense of lives.
A million combined casualties were inflicted upon the Germans and the Allies during this offensive. More than 24,000 of them were Canadian. One of them was a Yukoner, Private Bob Ellis, who was hit in the head and killed by a piece of shrapnel on Nov. 15 in the trenches near Courcelette.
Then, on Nov. 18, the Yukon Battery was engaged in a major offensive action providing barrage support to the Canadian 10th Brigade over Grandcourt Trench. The barrage commenced at 10 a.m., and the machine guns spat lead continuously for the next six hours, and then provided continuous covering fire through the night until dawn of the following day.
Captain Meurling, the commanding officer, reported: “It is impossible for me to lay too much stress on the enthusiasm, endurance and general good behavior of both men and officers during the whole of these trying 36 hours, out of which 24 hours were spent under practically continuous firing.”
These men, he noted, had already been on the line for five to six days before the offensive began. Captain Meurling praised his men for their ability to work the guns when under intense fire: “As long as any of them are left to teach the new ones our infantry will never lack the support that M/Guns, when properly handled, can give them, both before during and specially after a battle”
By Nov. 19, they had expended 550,000 rounds of ammunition. They withdrew from the field of battle in December and were stationed at Divion, 25 kilometres from the front. On Dec. 13, Captain Meurling and the Yukon men were decorated with the medals they had earned in the battle at Grandcourt Trench the month before. They were: Privates David Roulston, Harry Walker and Ernest Peppard, as well as Corporal Anthony Blaikie and Sergeant Frank McAlpine.
Harry Walker was a good example of a Yukon volunteer. Raised in Victoria, he came north during the early days of the gold rush and was engaged in mining on Sulphur Creek. Walker was awarded the Military Medal for the “devotion to duty displayed when he assembled a machine gun under heavy fire” during the Nov. 19 offensive.
According to the citation: “In the midst of a heavy bombardment of the British Lines by enemy guns, Private Walker and two of his comrades, showing utter contempt for the existing danger, moved out into the open and assembled their machine gun at a point where the fire could be effectively directed against the German positions. Just as they got the gun properly mounted a German shell buried itself in the ground immediately in front and undid their work by disarranging and burying some of the parts. In the face of all hazards they managed to secure the parts, put them together again and were eventually able to operate the gun against the enemy with telling effect.”
Within four months, these brave Yukoners had been transformed from raw recruits into battle-hardened soldiers.
Next week: the Yukon Machine Gun Battery participates in the defining moment for Canadians in World War I: the battle for Vimy Ridge.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, will be launched at 6 p.m. April 4 at the Old Fire Hall.