Straight and true: the story of the Yukon colours

Michael Gates | History Hunter

Last week, I participated in the 150th birthday celebration for Klondike Joe Boyle, sponsored by the Whitehorse Legion and the Yukon Historical and Museums Association, at the Mount MacIntyre recreation centre.

A major highlight of the event occurred when Sgt. John Mitchell and Chris Collin, of the Canadian Rangers from Dawson City, led a procession into the hall carrying the old regimental colours of the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade. The colours are normally seen mounted on the wall in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Dawson City.

The two flags were placed in a prominent location behind the speakers’ podium and were later joined by a life-size cut-out figure of Joe Boyle.

The regimental colours for this unit bring with them a story of patriotism, bravery and sacrifice. More than 1,000 men and women from the Yukon’s tiny population served their country during World War I and nearly 100 died in uniform. While they served in many units and numerous theatres of battle, two units are of particular note: The Boyle Machine Gun Detachment and the Black Contingent.

Klondike mining entrepreneur Joe Boyle sponsored a detachment of 50 men (39 from Dawson city, 11 from Whitehorse) that left the Yukon in October of 1914 and arrived in France the summer of 1916, renamed the Yukon Machine Gun Battery. They were engaged in numerous battles, including the battle of the Somme (1916), Vimy (1917), Passchendaele (1917), and the defence against the last German offensive in March 1918.

The men of the Yukon Machine Gun Battery received many honours for bravery in battle, but by the end of the action of March 1918, their ranks had been decimated by death and injury. The remainder of the Yukoners from this unit were integrated into a new formation in June of 1918, which was known as the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade (2nd CMMGB). But they were not alone.

Yukon Commissioner George Black volunteered for service and was commissioned as a captain in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in 1916. He raised a body of Yukon volunteers informally known as the Black Contingent, numbering about 250, and over the summer and fall of 1916, they were transported to Victoria, B.C. for training.

Shipped to England as the Yukon Infantry Company in early 1917, they were reformed as the 17th Canadian Machine Gun Company and sent under that name to France in March of 1918, but they joined their comrades from the Yukon Battery in June in the 2nd CMMGB.

These men fought in several battles leading to the Armistice Nov. 11 1918, including Amiens, Arras, Cambrai and Mons. That was followed by several months’ duty in the force of occupation in Bonn, Germany.

By April of 1919, they were back in England preparing for demobilization when they were presented with the regimental colours by Lady Perley, wife of the Canadian high commissioner, April 3 1919.

The ladies of the four chapters of the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE) in the Yukon raised $100 by public subscription for the creation of the regimental flags, which they hoped would one day be deposited in St. Paul’s Cathedral in Dawson City.

The colours, both the King’s Colours (Union Jack) and the regimental banner, were embroidered by the Royal School of Art Needlework, Kensington. Martha Black, the wife of the commissioner, even went down to Kensington to contribute a few stitches of her own to the regimental flag. The design of the flag consisted of a right-facing red arrow over a blue bar in the centre of a yellow circle, which was surrounded by the battles in which the brigade fought, the initials C.M.G.C. and the motto “Straight and True,” on a field of crimson.

The colours were consecrated in the parade ground at Seaford camp, east Sussex, by Colonel (Canon) Almond, the senior Canadian camp chaplain. They were then presented to the standard-bearers Lieutenant Lyman Black, M.C., (son of George and Martha Black) and Lieutenant Alex Wyllie of Ottawa, in front of an armed guard of officers and men.

The colours were brought back to Vancouver and remained with the unit until it was disbanded in 1920. The flags were brought home to the Yukon in August of 1922 by His Excellency, Lord Byng of Vimy, the Governor-General of Canada.

Byng presented them to Gold Commissioner George P. Mackenzie, the chief executive of the territory, in Minto Park before hundreds of citizens, including George Black and a company of returned soldiers. The ladies of the IODE, who originally commissioned the creation of the colours, including Martha Black, turned out in a body for the presentation.

The official party mounted the rostrum where aides to the governor-general stepped forward and carefully removed the flags from their leather casings and unfurled them. After speeches were delivered by the dignitaries, two members of the Mounted Police carried the flags with much ceremony to the council chamber in the territorial administration building, where they were placed beside the Speaker’s chair.

The flags remained in the administration building for the next 26 years. They were brought back to Minto Park, when the new cenotaph bearing the name of fallen Yukon soldiers was unveiled in a sombre ceremony on September 25, 1924. The ladies of the IODE, returned veterans and a party of Mounties accompanied Lieutenants Phillip Creamer and Frank Berton, who carried the colours to the flag-draped obelisk, which was unveiled in front of the assembled crowd.

The flags were returned to the council chambers and remained there until they were transferred to St. Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday, Aug. 15 1948. A colour party consisting of members of the Royal Canadian Signals, RCMP officers, Legion members, and veterans of both world wars, accepted the flags from Commissioner J.E. Gibben and escorted A.A. Bigg and John F. Maclennan, the colour bearers, to the cathedral, where they were received by Reverend W.R. Stringer. At last, the wish of the IODE from three decades earlier, was fulfilled.

During the Great War of 1914-1918, many Yukon volunteers lost their lives in the service of “King and Country,” including more than a dozen from the southern Yukon. It is for this reason that those present last Saturday gratefully appreciated the loan of the storied banners for the day as part of the birthday celebration of Joe Boyle, who sponsored the original Yukon machine gun unit 103 years ago.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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