the yukon goes to war

During the First World War, scores of Yukoners trekked to Europe to join the fray. As news of the Great War reached the territory, Commissioner…

During the First World War, scores of Yukoners trekked to Europe to join the fray.

As news of the Great War reached the territory, Commissioner George Black was among those who decided that they belonged at the front of the action.

He went to Ottawa and was told that if he could raise a battalion he could become a colonel.

Some Yukon men had already enlisted, and some had already sailed overseas to fight with Joe Boyle’s Machine Gun Company, but Black still managed to raise plenty of interest.

After a summer of recruiting, Black enlisted 226 men, which he named the Yukon Infantry Company. Coming from all aspects of Yukon life, the soldiers represented the Klondike: adventurous, resilient and able to face adversity.

They left Dawson on the SS Casca in October 1916 for training at Victoria, BC.

“Despite a heavy rain, the Yukon boys marched through the mud-strewn streets with brisk gait, and stood on the boat, cheering and waving to the last,” reported the Dawson Daily News on October 10, 1916.

George’s wife, Martha, went along with “her boys” — her husband and her son from her first marriage, Lyman.

She convinced authorities at Halifax to permit her to make the dangerous trip across the Atlantic and was the only woman on board for the eight-day voyage on the SS Canada.

The Yukon troops trained in England before joining other Canadian regiments.

Assigned to the 17th Machine Gun Company, they went to France as “C” Battery of the newly formed Second Canadian Machine Gun Brigade.

And there, their fates became intertwined with those of the other Canadian soldiers.

The period from August 8 to November 11, 1918 has come to be known as The Hundred Days.

When the Allied advance began, the Canadian Corps was assigned the task of spearheading an attack on an important salient near Amiens.

Utter secrecy was vital because the Germans had come to regard any movement of Canadian troops as a sign of imminent attack. To deceive the enemy, part of the corps was sent north to the Ypres section.

After making their presence known to the Germans they hurried back to Amiens.

Preparations for battle were carried out at night, and there was no preliminary bombardment to warn the enemy of impending action.

Surprise was complete.

Flanked by Australians and French, and spearheaded by British tanks, the Canadians advanced nearly 20 kilometres in three days.

The German High Command’s morale was badly shaken. In Ludendorff’s words, August 8 was the “black day of the German army.”

But the three days of fighting came at a cost — the corps suffered 9,074 casualties.

In mid-1918, the British had sufficient rolling stock and guns to carry out offensives on a number of fronts without having to stop and regroup.

So, after the breakthrough at Amiens, the Canadians were shifted back to Arras and given the task of cracking the Hindenburg Line — one of Germany’s main lines of defence.

Between August 26 and September 2, in hard continuous fighting, the Canadian Corps launched a succession of attacks that broke through the German defences, including breaching the infamous Drocourt-Queant Line, in front of the Canal du Nord, part of the main Hindenburg Line.

Canadian troops suffered heavy losses as they helped crack German defences over the next few months.

They ended at Mons at the time of the armistice.

The Canadian troops remained in Europe to share in the allied occupation. Finally, in 1919, the Canadian troops came home where they were greeted by crowds in cities and villages across the country.

The names of those who did not return are immortalized on the cenotaph in front of Whitehorse city hall.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.