By the end of 1916, the men of Joe Boyle’s Yukon Battery had become veterans in the field, having experienced battle and the extreme conditions on the Western Front.
Both the Germans and the Allies had become firmly dug into heavily fortified positions facing each other along a line that stretched from the Belgian coast across France for hundreds of kilometres. Often separated by only 100 metres, both sides had protective barbed wire barriers and machine gun nests to counter any advance from their enemies.
So firmly fixed were these positions that for most of the war, the adversaries remained in a terrible stalemate that could only be changed at great expense and loss of life. The gaining of a few hundred metres was treated as a major victory, but the real war was one of attrition in which both sides invested massive resources and sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives. The world had gone mad with war.
The landscape between the opposing armies was known as No Man’s Land for good reason. As the war progressed, it was blasted and battered beyond recognition; no life existed there. It was a terrible place, pockmarked with craters that became sodden cesspools during the rainy season. All life had ceased to exist in this zone; not a blade of grass, a flower or a tree grew there.
The forested land had been converted into a grotesque and barren zone filled with broken stumps. The bodies of the dead often remained out of reach of recovery parties, slowly rotting, filling the air with a nauseating stench. Tens of thousands of hapless souls were blown into eternity and their remains were never found for burial.
On each side of No Man’s Land were the trenches — vast networks of them — which afforded some protection against enemy gunfire. When it rained, they turned into quagmires. Men’s feet rotted away from trench foot, the result of being immersed in cold water for days on end. With the constant rain, the trenches turned into a slurry and the walls were perpetually collapsing.
Volunteers who were eager to get to the front quickly lost their enthusiasm when they saw, smelled and felt the austere horror of the trenches, which were populated with countless rats. Infested with lice, the men quickly learned to take off their garments daily, reverse them, and use their cigarette lighters to burn off the hundreds of vermin populating the woolen folds.
Soldiers became numb to the conditions. A human shinbone protruding from a trench wall made a grotesque coat hook. Men kept below the lip of the trench; to peer over might earn the curious a sniper’s bullet or a machine gun round in the head. They shivered to keep warm in the rat warrens, cubbyholes and dugouts.
A constant barrage of shellfire and shrapnel filled the air, and tension reigned where trench raids, poison gas attacks or frontal assaults could happen at any time. Sleep was difficult and nerves were shattered under the ceaseless deafening bombardment from heavy artillery, machine guns, howitzers and mortars.
The war turned Canada’s young soldiers into old men. And men contrived devious ways to be relieved of duty, purposely cultivating infections, or shooting themselves so that they could be removed to a casualty station.
The only thing the soldiers universally looked forward to was their daily rum ration. The burning sensation as it went down the throat and the numbing it imparted made the otherwise unbearable conditions almost tolerable.
The memories of the endless months in the trenches of the Western Front would be etched in their souls and the horrors burned into their subconscious for the rest of their lives.
The month of January 1917 was a period of quiet along the Canadian sector. On January 18, after the mission had been postponed three times, the Yukon Battery supplied barrage support for a trench raid in which one hundred Germans were captured. Sergeant Larry Peppard was the only casualty, being slightly wounded in a narrow escape during the raid.
Canadians had turned the trench raid into a fine art. To relieve the monotony of trench life, a year earlier, the 7th Battalion (1st British Columbia) conceived a raid on the German line using nearly two hundred men. The raid was highly successful, and Canadians began making regular forays into No Man’s Land and attacking the German line.
In fact, the Canadians set the standard for trench raid technique among all the Allied forces. These raids boosted morale and honed them into an elite fighting corps that became feared by the Germans. The Canadian troops could take some pride in the assertion that they owned No Man’s Land.
Herbert “Bertie” Stangroom was a Yukon Mountie who so desperately wanted to serve overseas that he attempted to desert his Yukon post in 1915. Stangroom was eventually allowed to volunteer in July 1916 and was assigned to the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI).
A trench raid near Vimy in which Stangroom participated in January 1917 involved an assault on a German observation post at Birkin Crater. When they were within 10 metres of the post, they rushed it and took three sentries prisoner, but not before one of them dislodged a bomb. Both Lieutenant Mortimer and Corporal Stangroom were seriously wounded and had to be carried back to the Canadian line by other members of the party.
An early report in the Dawson Daily News reported that during this raid, Stangroom had received twenty-five machine gun bullets to the legs, but a later article clarified that he was in a raiding party when a bomb landed in the trench they were raiding: “With quick presence of mind, he threw a big German on top of it, at the same time holding him down. The German was blown to hell and killed. Stangroom was blown some himself, but the worst he got was a leg full of bomb shrapnel.” This may have been the action for which he was later awarded the Military Medal.
The skills the Yukon volunteers developed from trapping, hunting, prospecting and mining in the Yukon served them well in wartime conditions. They could handle a rifle and endure harsh and challenging conditions, but life in the trenches and the horrors of No Man’s Land were something that nobody could prepare for.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, titled From the Klondike to Berlin, will be launched from 6 – 8 p.m. on Tuesday, April 4 at the Old Fire Hall.