One hundred years ago this week, Yukoners who had enlisted to fight the enemy in France and Belgium were about to go into one of the most important battles of the First World War.
Since 1914, the Allies had been locked in deadly stalemate with the German army along a battle line hundreds of kilometres wide, known as the Western Front. Yukoners had seen their men volunteer and sail away from Dawson. They were joined by more comrades in Whitehorse, where they boarded trains headed for Skagway, Alaska. Most of them would never return to the Yukon.
In the fall of 1916, a unit of 250 men, known as the George Black contingent, joined their namesake, who was the commissioner of the territory, and left the Yukon for Victoria. There they trained as a unit that was, for the time being, known as the Yukon Infantry Company.
They sailed for England in early 1917 and were stationed at Witley Camp in Sussex, where most of them remained together as a fighting unit. They were renamed the 17th Machine Gun Company and in March of 1918 were sent across the English Channel to France, where a major German offensive was under way.
Once they arrived in France, they were moved up to the front, where they were desperately needed. Their first contact with the enemy was through incessant shelling of their trenches.
Black was worried about his stepson, Lyman, who was serving in the Yukon Machine Gun Battery, and engaged in deadly battle at the time. “I have been unable to get any news of Lyman,” he wrote to his wife, Martha, who was busy with the war effort, across the Channel, in London. “His unit was away south when we were at their base and the information I did get was most disquieting. I am fearfully worried about him.” It was during this period of intense fighting that their teenage son earned the Military Cross.
In June of 1918, the 17th Machine Gun Company was melded with the tattered remains of other units, including Joe Boyle’s decimated Yukon Battery, and became the 2nd Canadian Motor Machine Gun Brigade (2nd CMMG Bde).
In late June, the brigade was stricken with influenza, and within a week, the ranks were so depleted another battery had to step in to take over some of their duties. Most of them recovered after three days, weak, but otherwise fit for duty. Only two men were sick enough to be sent to hospital. One of them, Harry Melin, an unmarried Montenegrin labourer from Dawson died of pneumonia. His was the only case in the 300 victims stricken in the entire brigade where the “Three-day Fever” proved fatal. Within a year, more men had died from influenza than were killed during the war.
The Canadian Corps had big plans in which the entire Canadian Expeditionary Force would be involved in a massive assault on the German line.
The assault was prepared using meticulous planning and deception under the utmost secrecy. The movement of 100,000 men, their equipment, artillery, ammunition and supplies to their secret marshaling area was a logistical challenge. The movement took place at night. Despite the planning, the traffic jams were enormous. Heavy deployment of aircraft to the skies over Amiens prevented the diminished German air reconnaissance from detecting the massive movement that was afoot below. If the Germans had known that the Canadians were massing, they could have blown them to smithereens with artillery fire.
The Canadians, who were fresh and well equipped, faced a depleted enemy. The Germans had also been weakened by the attack of the virulent influenza epidemic, and few defensive preparations had been made along this relatively quiet section of the Western Front. Behind the Canadian line was the artillery; guns were placed five to 10 metres apart. They provided the barrage behind which the Canadian troops would advance at the rate of 200 metres per minute.
The battle was to be known, informally, as “Llandovery Castle,” a reminder of a hospital ship that had been torpedoed by a German submarine. Only six of the 94 Canadians survived the sinking; all 14 Canadian nurses on board perished. The Germans then gunned or rammed many of the lifeboats full of the wounded or defenseless. The barbarity of this act became the battle cry, reminiscent of “Remember the Maine” from the Spanish American War.
The attack that commenced on Aug. 8, was a huge success. The Germans were unprepared for the battle and the Allied forces, along a broad front, made the largest Allied advances in a single day of battle since the opponents had become entrenched along the Western Front. Within six days, the Germans had retreated 24 kilometres. The morale of the German High Command was badly shaken. In General Ludendorff’s words, Aug. 8 was the “black day in the history of the German Army.” It was the beginning of the end for Germany. The Canadian Corps, 100,000 strong, suffered 11,822 casualties, mostly infantry in combat along the front lines.
After two days of intense fighting, of the 300 men in the 2nd CMMG Brigade, many of them Yukoners, five were killed and 55 were wounded, including George Black. Among the dead were Sergeant Charles T. O’Brien and Corporal Angus McKellar. O’Brien was a Dawson school boy, one of 50 who enlisted during the war. His father was the late T.W. O’Brien, the Klondike brewery king. Angus McKellar had been a member of the first detachment of North West Mounted Police in the Yukon at Forty Mile before the gold rush. Single when he enlisted, he was now a newlywed. Both were killed near Bouchoir when an enemy shell made a direct hit on their armoured car.
George Black was more fortunate. As he wrote to family, he sustained a bullet wound to the thigh:
“My ‘wounds’ (that’s a strong word for it – I’ve been worse hit in civilian life) consist of a slam on the left leg with a chunk of shrapnel, that didn’t break any bones, but rather messed up the hide and my breeches, but wouldn’t have been sufficiently serious to stop me just then, had not the swine punctured my right leg with a Machine Gun Bullet (he had some to spare from the amount we were anointing him with). It is just a clean bore and will heal rapidly – not very painful but most annoying.”
Black saw only a few hours of front line combat. Before sustaining a “blighty,” a non-fatal wound that knocked him out of battle and got him shipped back to England to the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, London. After a convalescent period, Black was back on duty by early October, stationed in reserve. When he returned to his unit at Christmas, the war was over and he was called upon to command his unit as a force of occupation situated in Bonn, Germany.
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