Shriners from Victoria were feted at a Grand Ball in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall on August 5, 1914, at the end of their visit to Dawson City. The festivities were interrupted when Dr. Alfred Thompson, member of Parliament for the Yukon, received two news bulletins from the Dawson Daily News.
Mounting the rostrum, Thompson read out the first announcement, which stated that Parliament would convene on August 18. The announcement was greeted by cheers and the singing of the national anthem. The second message announced a major naval victory, after which the orchestra played Rule Britannia.
The Great War had begun for the Yukon.
According to the Dawson News: “from every throat welled the chorus till the house shook. Then followed God Save the King, and three cheers and a tiger. Commissioner (George) Black was present on the platform and joined heartily in the demonstration.”
The day after the official notification of war, Commissioner Black placed advertisements in the newspaper calling for volunteers. He and Dr. Thompson were the first to sign their names to the book at the Administration Building.
Howard Grestock, a veteran of the Boer War, was the next to volunteer. Within days of the declaration, he was aboard the steamer Dawson, heading Outside to enlist. Grestock ultimately became one of the Yukon’s war fatalities.
It wasn’t long before local business leader Joe Boyle set about recruiting and equipping a machine-gun battery, with 50 men. By war’s end, every officer and 24 of the 40 enlisted men were reported to have received decorations. It is said that this was a record for any Canadian Army unit in the First World War.
During the Great War, 561 men from the territory enlisted, which was a per capita rate far higher than that of the rest of Canada. Each Yukon resident also donated more money to the war effort than those of any other part of the country. Had the rest of Canada responded with the same magnanimity, the contribution to the war chest would have been 10 times greater.
Commissioner Black also wanted to do his patriotic duty, but it was two years before he enlisted. He organized an infantry company consisting of 225 volunteers, and was placed in command. The war was a family affair. Stepson Lyman, who adopted the Black name, volunteered when he was still a student of 17. George’s brother, William, also volunteered for service and saw action at Passchendaele.
By age 19, Lyman would be a lieutenant, and awarded the Military Cross. Single-handed, he took over an abandoned machine gun and held the line against the advancing enemy, whom he mowed down in large numbers.
The Blacks, including George’s wife, Martha, and members of the Yukon Infantry Company, marched down Front Street in Dawson to the dock, where, with much fanfare, they boarded the steamer Casca on October 9, 1916, and departed for Victoria.
On January 24, 1917, the Blacks and the other Yukon volunteers left Halifax aboard the SS Canada for Liverpool. Martha insisted upon accompanying her husband and her son, and sailed to England as the only woman of 2,000 aboard the troop ship. The feelings of the Yukon men were best expressed in a rollicking impromptu shanty, sung lustily on deck between dashes of salt-sea spray, which showed that the one and only lady voyager was far from being an unwelcome mess mate. This is the jingle:
“We have stolen Mrs. Black and we will not bring her back,
‘Till the Germans quit and when the Allies win
‘Till we nail the Union Jack to the Kaiser’s chimney stack,
‘And we toast the Yukon Daughters in Berlin.”
While George and Lyman served in the battlefields in France, Martha served as unofficial emissary from the Yukon. Under the auspices of the Red Cross, she travelled widely in Britain, giving one, two, even three, illustrated slide talks about the Yukon every day. She learned first aid, volunteered with the Red Cross, and administered the Yukon Comfort Fund.
The war dragged on for more than four years; furthermore, it was a living hell. Amid the chaos and horror, George and his men were dispatched to France in March of 1918 during the spring offensive. They spent months behind the lines awaiting orders to engage the enemy, but it wasn’t until August of 1918 in the Battle of Amiens that they were sent into combat. Black’s battery was ready to move ahead when he was hit in the thigh by a machine gun round.
He was quickly transferred to the rear and within three days, he was back in London in the Royal Free Hospital. After he recovered, he was put back into active duty and later returned to the continent with the Allied force that occupied Germany after the end of the war.
Others weren’t so lucky and paid the ultimate price.
In addition to Howard Grestock, 62 more Yukon names were added to the list of the war dead. Charlie Phillips was the first to lose his life, in the East African campaign. Albert Brown was a teller at the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse. George Chapman was the son of the man who ran the steam power-generating plant in Dawson. Alfred Cronin worked as a clerk for the Northern Commercial store in Whitehorse. Jack Taylor was the son of the magistrate in Whitehorse. All are buried in France – social position allowed no favouritism in matters of life and death.
Anthony Blaikie won both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but he died at the Somme and was buried there in a British cemetery. Aubrey Forrest was killed August 21, 1918 and is also buried near Somme. Blaikie was 42 years old; Forrest was 38.
Of the 300,000 British Empire soldiers who died in the Battles of Ypres, remains of 55,000 were never recovered. Among those were Privates Frank De Sales and Joseph Tilton. Both were killed October 30, 1917. They were part of a useless offensive to gain a few hundred yards of sodden, crater-filled wasteland and take the village of Passchendaele from the Germans. By the time they did, there was nothing left of the village.
Private Alfred Clinton Totty, son of the Anglican minister at Moosehide, was killed September 2, 1918. He was buried at Pas De Calais, in France.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles James Townshend Stewart, age 44, served with the Eastern Ontario Regiment of the Canadian Infantry. Recipient of both the Distinguished Order and the Croix de Guerre (France), he died September 28, 1918 and is buried in Nord, France. When 33-year-old Joseph Dupont died on October 18, 1918, the war was nearly over.
These are but a few of those who died. We remember them by their name, rank, date of birth and place of death, but they were husbands, fathers, sons, and Yukoners. They are buried in France, Belgium, and other places, taken from us in battles like Passchendaele, Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org