By the end of the war, 19-year-old Lt. Lyman Black (on motorcycle) was a decorated war hero. He was given the honour of leading the machine gun brigade into Mons, Belgium, when the First World War ended. (Yukon Archives/George Black fonds)

How a Dawson schoolboy became a war hero

‘It was swell fun, the best I ever had in my life’

In June of 1916, a 17-year-old Dawson schoolboy joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He was just one of 50 school boys from the Yukon who enlisted in World War I. He lied about his age, adding a year in order to be eligible for enlistment.

Lyman Purdy was born in Dawson City during the height of the Gold Rush, in January of 1899. Born into a wealthy American family, he attended the Dawson City Public School while growing up in the Klondike. Martha Purdy, his mother, chose to remain in Dawson after the gold rush, and married Dawson lawyer George Black. As Lyman’s own father never met his youngest son while growing up (Will Purdy did not accompany his pregnant wife to the Klondike), Black became the only father figure Lyman ever knew.

As a youth, he was active in sports, and accompanied his stepfather on hunting and fishing trips in the hills and streams of the Yukon. Lyman was no stranger to guns, and learned at a young age how to forage in the Yukon wilds.

Lyman absorbed many of the traits of his stepfather. When George Black, who had been governing the Yukon Territory since 1912 felt the patriotic call of “King and country,” Lyman too felt the urge to volunteer in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He joined volunteer drill practice in the Arctic Brotherhood Hall (now Diamond Tooth Gertie’s) the winter of 1916, until the weather allowed him and the other volunteers to drill outdoors.

When his mother and stepfather returned to Dawson City in June of 1916, he had only two days with them before he shipped out from Dawson City with the first contingent of volunteers aboard the steamer Casca.

George and Martha Black, accompanied by another contingent of more than a hundred volunteers, shipped out to Victoria in October or 1916, where they reunited briefly, while the Yukon volunteers trained for military service at the Willows Camp. An addendum to Lyman’s enlistment papers dated Nov. 15 1916 announces the fact that he had adopted his stepfather’s surname and was forever after known as Lyman Black

In England, he quickly progressed to the rank of lieutenant, and in November of 1917, he joined the Boyle contingent from the Yukon in France, now named the Yukon Motor Machine Gun Battery.

On the morning of March 21 1918, the Germans launched a massive offensive on the Western Front, hoping to break through to Paris. Day by day, the Germans advanced, and appeared ready to capture the strategic rail hub of Amiens. Canadian motorized machine gun units, including the Yukon Battery were called in to resist the advancing Germans. Moving into the line wherever they were most needed, they slowed down and stopped the German advance at critical moments in the battle.

On March 23, the Yukon Battery received orders to move from their well-fortified position near Vimy, south to Amiens. For the next three weeks, the Yukon Battery was subjected to the bloodiest combat of their war.

The ranks of the Yukon Battery were quickly diminished by combat until each machine gun crew was operating at half-strength. In one delaying action, they saved Divisional Headquarters from being captured.

Day after bloody day, they stalled the German advance while the British mobilized reinforcements. They held the enemy at bay, mostly by bluff, moving the guns up and down along the line, and firing short bursts from different positions to convey the impression of a larger force.

If it hadn’t been for the Canadian (and Yukon) machine guns, the Allied line would had been broken. Finally on April 1, three tattered reinforcement divisions came in to beef up the line. But the exhausted machine gunners had to remain in position until April 3, when they were finally replaced by British and Australian machine gun units. They returned to camp at Hebecourt where the decimated remains of the Yukon Battery (only 10 soldiers survived) rested and reorganized.

Their rest did not last long. On April 4, they were sent back into the battle when they received word that the Germans were planning to attack the French village of Villers-Bretonneux It was there that Lyman witnessed 30 of his comrades blown up by a direct hit from a German artillery shell while they were unloading ammunition from a three-ton truck. That left young Black without either a machine gun or a crew.

In his own words, he later told his stepfather: “There was a perfectly good armoured car standing there fully equipped, (with) guns, ammunition and crew, so I hopped on to it and out the road we went between the lines on a good road in “no man’s land” that the enemy was advancing at right angles to in bunches. Before they realized what was coming we were onto them pouring in burst after burst of machine gun fire annihilating a group here and a group there and back to our lines without a man getting hit. The other cars were then put at the same work and did mighty well. This was the first time a Canadian armoured machine gun car was taken into the scrapping and made to do the work for which it was designed. It was swell fun, the best I ever had in my life.”

What remained of the Yukon Battery was finally relieved of duty April 11. During their nearly three weeks of constant battle, the Yukon men had played a vital role in allowing the Allied infantry to regroup. They helped slow down and eventually stem the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, and in part prevented the capture of the vital transportation centre of Amiens. Three weeks may not seem like a long time, but to the men of the Yukon Battery, it must have seemed like a lifetime.

Within a few weeks, the now depleted Yukon Battery was no more. It was amalgamated with George Black’s 17th Machine Gun Company to become part of a new unit: the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade.

As for young Lieutenant Black, one of the youngest officers in the brigade, he was now a certified war hero. For his actions during the battle in March, he was awarded the Military Cross at Buckingham Palace as his proud mother looked on.

At war’s end, the young Lyman was bestowed the honour of leading the victorious motorized machine gun brigade through the streets of Mons, Belgium. Like many others from the Yukon, he never returned to the North. He remained in the military with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He married Aimee Dixon of Winnipeg in 1930, but he never saw action in World War II as he died in an automobile accident in 1937.

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 msgates@northwestel.net


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