The Whitehorse Star of Oct. 22, 1915, reported that the first all-Whitehorse contingent of volunteers for the Canadian Expeditionary Force left that morning for The Willows Camp, in Victoria, B.C., where they were to enlist and begin training to serve in the Canadian Forces overseas.
There were 12 men, James M. Smith, Alfred Cronin, Alex Pover, Norman Ryder, George Chapman, Robert Holburn, Jack Hyde, Jack Graham, Henry Royal, Charles Wall, William “Red” Brown, and William W. Burden. These men ranged in age from 18 (James Salvatore and Norman Ryder) to 42 (Robert Holburn). They were miners, teamsters, and seamen working on the riverboats. Some worked in retail.
Two days before, the men had been hosted at a send-off at the Whitehorse Moose Hall. Isaac Taylor acted as chairman and master of ceremonies. Meals were served along with a limited quantity of beer. Speeches were given, songs were sung and music was played before things wrapped up around midnight.
A second group left Whitehorse a few weeks later, including Joe Bingham, George Ryder, Fred Young, Jimmy Porter and James Salvatore, Bill Hughes, Laurence Wilson, John Luich (a Serbian), and Vido Zik (a Montenegran).
Aubrey Simmons, of Carcross, was also among this group. Simmons would return safely to the Yukon, and 30 years later would serve the Yukon as its Member of Parliament. These men were also hosted to a celebratory send-off at a “St. Andrew’s entertainment” a few days before departing for Victoria. The men enlisted together when they arrived in Victoria a few days later. Norman Ryder was joined at The Willows Camp by his older brother George.
Joe Bingham was determined to enlist, despite his age (he was 46 years old), and his physical condition. Bingham had suffered a broken jaw in 1914 in an explosion at the Pueblo copper mine near Whitehorse. Despite the wound not having healed fully, he traveled to Vancouver, where he was rejected on medical grounds.
Bingham took the train across the country, stopping at numerous towns in attempt to enlist, all with the same result. He even crossed the Atlantic, to England, but was rejected for service there too. Returning to Whitehorse, he finally found a sympathetic ear and was accepted, given the rank of Acting Lance Corporal, in charge of eight other Yukon men headed for Victoria.
Laurence Wilson, a Mounted Policeman stationed in Dawson, decided to enlist when he learned that a friend, who had been part of the Boyle contingent the year before, had been killed in action. Wilson made his way to Whitehorse where he joined the Whitehorse men headed for The Willows Camp.
Seventeen of these men were taken into the 67th Battalion (Western Scots), an infantry battalion commanded by Lt.-Colonel L. Ross. The battalion embarked for England in April of 1916 and converted to a Pioneer (engineering) battalion a short time later. Among other battles, the 67th fought at the Somme in 1916, and Arras and Vimy in 1917. Before leaving Victoria, the Whitehorse men gathered to pose for a photograph, dressed neatly in their uniforms.
Only a few of these men would return to the Yukon after the war. Approximately 100 men enlisted from the southern Yukon; of these, fifteen would die in service: Albert Brown, Percy Butler, George Chapman, Alfred Cronin, Bruce Fisher, William Hare, Joseph Joyal, Arthur G. McLelland, Harold A.E. Newton, Frank Polley, George V. Raymond, Hugh Stewart, Hilliard Snyder, Jack Taylor, and William A. Williams.
One Whitehorse volunteer, George Randolph Pearkes, was born in England and came to Canada in 1906. He enlisted in the Mounted Police and had been stationed in Whitehorse and Carcross. He was able to enlist in Victoria in March, 1915, and quickly rose through the ranks. In October of 1916, at the battle of Passchendaele, Major Pearkes was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour in the British Commonwealth, for his leadership in battle, while wounded. Pearkes later served as minister of defence in the cabinet of John Diefenbaker. He was the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia from 1961 to1968.
George Ryder was gassed in 1917, then suffered a gun shot wound to the chest the following year, but survived both. His brother Norman was wounded twice, and he, too, recovered. Both returned to the Yukon after the war. Members of the Ryder family still live in the Yukon to this day.
Others suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds, injuries from gas attacks and shell shock. William Hughes was captured and spent the remainder of the conflict as a prisoner of war. James Salvatore suffered a gunshot wound to the head, and despite reports in the Whitehorse Star that he had died, he survived the war and returned to the Yukon.
Only one of the 17 Whitehorse men in the 67th Battalion would die, although most sustained various injuries and wounds during the conflict. Alfred Cronin was born in Liverpool England, in 1884 and later emigrated to Canada, and gained employment as a clerk for the Northern Commercial Company in Whitehorse. Cronin advanced through the ranks and was commissioned as a Temporary Lieutenant in June of 1918.
As the end of the war was approaching, he was killed September 27, 1918, by an exploding shell in Bourlon Wood while going to the aid of a wounded comrade. Cronin was buried in Bourlon Wood Cemetery in Pas de Calais, France. A mountain near the Northwest Territories border on the Dempster Highway was named in his honour in 1973.
These men served our country with honour and most returned to Canada scarred physically. We must never forget the sacrifices they made.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His new book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org