In mid-August, my wife Kathy and I took a World War I battlefield tour through France and Belgium. Our goal was simple: to visit as many memorials to fallen Yukon soldiers from World War I as possible.
Yukon soldiers are buried in more than 50 cemeteries on four continents. Some of those are only listed as names on memorials as their remains were never found.
Our destination on the first day of our battlefields tour: The Ypres salient; specifically, the Menin Gate, constructed in 1928, where a decade before, thousands of patriotic soldiers passed, never to return. The names of 14 brave Yukoners are chiseled in marble on the walls of this huge architectural feature.
I found all their names and photographed them all. Some were so high up the walls that I had to use a telephoto lens capture them. Their names: Peter Allan, George W. Cassidy, Frank Desales, Oswald Grant, William Kerr, Fred LaBlanche, Harry McLennan, Cecil Mack Merritt, Peter Morrison, Harold A.E. Newton, George E. Otis, Francois Pregent, Joseph Tilton and Jack Watt.
Nine of these Yukon men died on October 30, 1917 during the battle for Passchendaele. Their remains were never found. Of these, seven served in the same unit. Most of them were miners before they enlisted.
The following day, our bus whisked us into the Somme valley where hundreds of cemeteries containing the war dead are scattered across the countryside. There are 400 burial sites within the Somme valley and the Ypres salient, maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
During World War I, the barren, pock-marked landscape of No Man’s Land covered the countryside with rotting corpses and foul, water-filled craters. There was no blade of grass, no trees, in fact, there was nothing living in this awful landscape. Today, the same ground is verdant and peaceful, disturbed only when another artillery shell or grenade is plowed up by a farmer.
One destination on day two was the Vimy Memorial. This is hallowed ground for Canadians. One of only two national historic sites not found on Canadian soil, the memorial is the largest of any found in Belgium or France. Here, too, are engraved the names of thousands of Canadians whose remains were never identified, including those of several Yukoners.
Because our tour was running late, we only had a half hour to view this memorial, instead of the hour that had been promised. Kathy and I bolted from the bus and sprinted up the long approach to the memorial to take photographs of the names of nine Yukoners, engraved into the stone base of this elegant, almost overwhelming, structure: Ralph C. Ewing, Reginald Gilbert, Arthur G. Leeson, Marko Milatovich, Harry Sergeant, William H. Snyder, John S. Taylor, James B. Watters, Thomas H. Wilson.
We couldn’t find all of the Yukon names in the allotted time. Our guide informed us, too late, that the names were organized according to rank. We did our best to photograph them, and were the last to return, breathless, to the waiting bus.
At this point, we were disappointed, but I learned that a party of 13 members of an English family were going to visit the grave of a great-great uncle buried at Warloy-Baillon Communal Cemetery Extension. Consulting my listing of cemeteries, I discovered that Yukoner John Gilmour Hay was also buried there, so I tagged along while Kathy remained with the rest of the tour group at Beaumont-Hamel, the other Canadian national historic site that we visited.
I quickly found the grave of John Hay and took my photograph, and then served as unofficial photographer for the other party, who clustered for a brief and moving moment, around the grave of their beloved departed, great-great uncle Joseph German, age 19, of Liverpool. I snapped pictures of the sombre, tearful party while they clustered around the grave, then we all clambered aboard the bus and were gone.
On the final day of our tour, we witnessed the ceremony that takes place at the Menin Gate, at Ieper in Belgium, each evening at 8 o’clock. A thousand people had assembled at the gate that evening to witness the ceremony, which has occurred every day since the memorial was constructed in 1928, except for an interruption during World War II.
Three volunteer firemen, dressed in neat, identical uniforms slowly marched into the centre of the memorial and, as a hush fell over the assembled crowd, they played The Last Post. A visiting choir sang as a number of people stepped forward to lay wreaths, and the buglers played a final lament. The ceremony was finished in less than 15 minutes. It was a stirring conclusion to our battlefields tour.
We had yet one more opportunity to visit the graves of Yukon fallen a few days later. En route to a coastal resort near Eastbourne, Sussex, where we were scheduled to spend a few days, we made a detour to the Milford Cemetery, near Witley, Surrey. Witley was the wartime site of a large encampment of Canadian soldiers, where they trained while waiting to be shipped overseas. The cemetery is located on the perimeter of the Witley Milford nature preserve. Kathy and I walked for twenty minutes along a path through the preserve until we came to the site.
The graves were readily recognizable by the standard contours of the markers and I quickly found the stones that marked the remains of two more Yukon soldiers who had died in service: Fredrick R. Chute and John A. MacPherson. Neither of them lived to see action.
Chute died when he was killed by an ambulance that had lost control and careened into a group of Yukon volunteers who were on a route march. He was killed instantly. MacPherson was killed in an explosion that occurred while participating in the filming of a war office newsreel. I planted a Yukon flag in front of each of these graves, and knelt beside them as Kathy took photographs.
It was a touching communion with the fallen Yukoners, and a reminders of those who died in the service of their country. These men represented the future of the Yukon. At war’s end, hundreds of the Yukon volunteers chose not to return to the Territory. But we shall never forget them.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, From the Klondike to Berlin, was shortlisted for a national book award. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org