Yukon women and the Great War

When Britain declared war with Germany the summer of 1914, the men of the territory rallied to the cause. After all, it would be over by Christmas, they were sure.

When Britain declared war with Germany the summer of 1914, the men of the territory rallied to the cause. After all, it would be over by Christmas, they were sure.

The war was not over by Christmas, and in the ensuing years, more than 800 Yukon men volunteered from a population of only a few thousand. Of those who enlisted, at least 100 lost their lives during the conflict. Of the remainder, as few as 100 ever returned to the territory after the war.

But the women were busy too. The Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE) was the pivotal group in advancing the patriotic agenda throughout the territory.

The purposes of the IODE were, among others, to “foster a bond of union among the women and children of the (British) Empire,” and: “To provide an efficient organization by which prompt and united action may be taken … when such action was desired.” In other words, it was to do good deeds, but honour the British Empire, and its history.

The first Chapter of the Order was established in the Yukon March 6, 1913, when Martha Black formed the George M. Dawson Chapter at a meeting in the commissioner’s residence in Dawson City. Until the war started, the activities of the order were mostly social, along with a few charity events and the handing out of prizes for essays written by the public school children.

A second chapter, the Fitzgerald chapter, was created less than a year later, January 17, 1914. It was named in honour of the Mounted Policeman who perished on a patrol from Fort McPherson to Dawson in 1911.

Three more chapters followed: the Klondike Chapter on January 29, 1915, the Martha Munger Black Chapter, of Dawson City on February 1, 1916 and a chapter in Whitehorse, which was established October 21, 1914, with Mrs. Phelps as its first regent. All were active in organizing events and raising funds for patriotic purposes during the war.

Early in the war, when a call was raised for funding a hospital ship, the Yukon responded by raising more than $6,000 in just a few days. The Ladies of Whitehorse began to raise money for the Canadian Patriotic Fund, and within two months, the amount had risen to $3,000.

When community leader Joe Boyle sponsored a company of 50 volunteers in September of 1914, the ladies of the community assembled to create “Housewives,” little kits for each soldier containing things that they might need when overseas – buttons, needles, pins, shoelaces and the like. They also raised $1,500 for the Boyle Company pocket fund, which was divided equally among the 50 men when they left Dawson City.

When Commissioner George Black assembled 225 volunteers in 1916 to join him in the overseas campaign, the ladies of the community rallied again, providing each man with his own monogrammed “housewife,” and a lovely wristwatch.

The ladies would gather on a regular basis to sew and knit items to send to the men overseas. Socks were most important to the men’s health, as well as morale.

Besides sewing for the Red Cross, the knitters of the Martha Munger Black Chapter sent to the men at the front hundreds of pairs of socks. The Dr. George M. Dawson chapter also knit up to 300 pairs of socks, besides numerous wristlets and other articles. By 1917, another group, the Klondike Knitting Klub, had established weekly get-togethers at the public school where they knitted socks for the soldiers overseas.

William Black, one of many soldiers to do so, wrote a letter to tell the IODE that their socks were very much appreciated. The only way to escape trench feet, which, he said, is a crime to have, is to change socks very often, at least every 24 hours, so the demand was a big one.

This support on the knitting front was not restricted to the ladies of Dawson. The Duchess of Connaught joined in the patriotic campaign by knitting socks, six pairs of which were sent to Dawson. Three pairs were raffled for $25 by one of the chapters of IODE, and three pairs were sold for the same sum making $50 in all. Then the winner of the raffle returned the three pairs to the Chapter and they in turn raffled them for $100. So they got $150 for the royal gift and felt very pleased with the result.

But socks weren’t the only things that were sent overseas. Tobacco was a perennial favorite. The men across the Atlantic were sending letters home to the Yukon thanking the women of the Yukon for their gifts of tobacco, candies and similar items. One Yukon soldier wrote that the gifts sent to him and others overseas brought tears to his eyes.

The number of funds multiplied. Early on, there was a fund for relief of Belgian refugees. There was the Yukon Comfort Fund, which was administered by Martha Black when stationed in London, England. There was the Field Comfort Fund, The Queen’s Canadian Hospital Fund, and money given to both Dawson hospitals. There was a disablement fund, a Serbian Relief fund, the Queen Mary Christmas Box fund and another to provide assistance to needy families whose providers had gone overseas.

Yukon women were prolific joiners, and during the war, a number of patriotic clubs and organizations were formed to provide support in one way or another. In 1915, the Sunshine Club put on a lawn party, and the money raised from the sale of handkerchiefs, jellies and candies went to the patriotic fund. The Daughters of Nippon was one of the first organizations to step forward with a donation for the Hospital Ship Fund. The Anglican Church women raised money for Belgian refugees.

The Daughters of the Eastern Star were no slouches in their patriotic activities. Just before Christmas, 1914, they organized a fundraiser at the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association from which 100 later-comers had to be turned away.

The American Women’s Club raised nearly $1,100 at a Fourth of July picnic. The ladies were provided the steamer Casca and a barge by White Pass Company for the purpose. Lunch was served on the Casca, and ice cream on the barge. Lemonade and cigars were sold to the revellers.

 

They also organized a patriotic fund-raising ball at the Arctic Brotherhood Hall. The event was a grand affair attended by the acting commissioner George Williams and his wife, as well as Judge Macaulay.

In their efforts, the women of the Yukon exceeded those of any other part of the country. Yukoners were proud to have donated 20 times the national average. The most patriotic of them all was Martha Black, and I will write about her war campaign next week.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His three books on Yukon history are available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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