Yukon’s World War I soldiers are not forgotten

Many people asked me for a copy of the speech I gave at the Remembrance Day service on Tuesday at the Canada Games Centre. What follows is that speech in its entirety. 

Many people asked me for a copy of the speech I gave at the Remembrance Day service on Tuesday at the Canada Games Centre. What follows is that speech in its entirety.

Aug. 4, 1914 was pleasantly mild though overcast in the Yukon, and the movie theatres of Dawson were filled to capacity when the news was received that Britain was at war. That meant that Canada, too, was at war. When Yukon Commissioner George Black read out the telegram in the Palace Grand Theatre, the Mounties in attendance rose as one and began to sing God save the King. The entire audience followed suit. From 300 throats came the song, and the house shook with patriotic fervour.

The response to the call for volunteers was immediate and dramatic. Howard Grestock, a Boer War veteran, was the first to volunteer, but he did not live to see the end of the war.

Thomas Corville, a miner from Coal Creek, wanted to enlist too. He did not have the fare for a steamer ride to Whitehorse, and failed to get it from anyone else, so he shoved a little hardtack into his bag and walked 600 kilometres to Whitehorse. When he reached Victoria, he was rejected for having flat feet.

Joe Boyle, one of Yukon’s most prominent mining entrepreneurs, sponsored a machine gun battery of 50 men, which was said to have been one of the most highly decorated units of all the allied forces. Then Commissioner Black stepped down from his comfortable position and enlisted. Two hundred and twenty five men joined him in what became known as the “Black Contingent.” Several members of the Yukon Council took up the flag, leaving barely a quorum to carry on.

Over 600 Yukoners volunteered out of a population of about 5,000. High school students enlisted, some lying about their age to do so. Brothers enlisted, as did fathers and sons. Two men mushed all the way from Herschel Island to enroll in Dawson.

Mounties enlisted in droves. Miners came from Mayo, Atlin, Forty Mile, Kluane, Livingston Creek, Carcross, Carmacks and Whitehorse. Americans, Serbians and Montenegrins also rallied to the flag. From the most humble, to the most prominent, they all responded to the call to arms.

The entire territory stood behind them. The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire started raising money for a hospital ship and Belgian relief, and the dollars rolled in. A Canadian Patriotic Fund was begun as well as a Yukon Comfort Fund to aid the Yukon men overseas. They knitted socks, which were greatly appreciated in the trenches, and they wrote letters.

Martha Black, wife of the commissioner, accompanied her husband to England where she visited the lonely and wounded northern soldiers, served on the Red Cross, and travelled widely in Britain, lecturing about the Yukon.

Yukoners gave 20 times the national average. By 1917, they had raised nearly $100,000, which would be millions today. The American Women’s Club, the Japanese community, and First Nations all contributed to the fundraising.

In the ensuing war years, the volunteers endured long periods of waiting to be sent to the front, followed by days, weeks, and years in the trenches, subjected to gas attacks, gunfire and constant shelling. The food was bad in the rat-infested, mud-filled trenches, but Yukoners served well.

James Christie, who had survived a vicious mauling from a grizzly bear a few years before the war, became one of the most heroic men of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. Twice wounded, he was promoted in the field from private, to lance-corporal, to sergeant, to lieutenant in charge of the Princess Patricia’s fearless sniper unit. Before war’s end, Christie had been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, and decorated with the Military Cross.

George Pearkes was a Mountie stationed in Whitehorse, who was quick to sign up when war was declared. In less than three weeks, he was in Ottawa, and a member of the Canadian Mounted Rifles. Pearkes rose rapidly through the ranks to a position of command.

On October 30, 1917, near Passchendaele, Belgium, despite being severely wounded, and showing a supreme contempt for danger, he led a small party of troops in taking and holding their objective despite numerous counter attacks. For this, he earned the Victoria Cross. Many years later, he became the lieutenant-governor of British Columbia.

Rowland Bourke, a doctor’s son, had attended school in Dawson City before the war. Small of frame and with poor eyesight, he was rejected by all three branches of the Canadian Armed Forces, so he sailed to England, where he was accepted into the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. In command of a small motor launch, in a period of less than three weeks, he earned both the Distinguished Service Order and the Victoria Cross for his actions along the Belgian coast.

Not all were so fortunate. A hundred Yukon names were added to the list of the war dead. Charlie Phillips was the first to die, in the East African campaign. Albert Brown was a teller at the Bank of Commerce in Whitehorse. Alfred Cronin worked as a clerk for the Northern Commercial store here as well. George Chapman was the son of the man who ran the steam power generating plant in Dawson. Jack Taylor was the son of the Whitehorse magistrate. All of them are buried in France.

Anthony Blaikie won both the Military Medal and the Distinguished Conduct Medal, but he died at the Somme and is buried 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 Yukon 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. When they succeeded, there was nothing left of the village.

These men gave their lives for a cause that they all believed in. And in the process, they helped move Canada ever closer to nationhood. More than 600 Yukon men rallied to the cause. More than a hundred Yukon men remain in cemeteries half a world away. Only a hundred or so ever returned to the Yukon

These are but a few of those who fought and died. They were enlisted men and officers; young and old. They are buried in France, Belgium, and other places, taken from us in battles like those of Passchendaele, Vimy and Amiens.

We remember them by their name, rank, date of birth and place of death. They are not statistics, they were flesh and blood.

Let us not forget them.

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 msgates@northwestel.net

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