The Yukon at War

The unquestioned zeal and commitment of Yukon men served to hasten the Territory’s decay — their departure strangled the Yukon economy.

On the evening of 4 August 1914, the citizens of Dawson City were enjoying a theatre party, hosted at the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association theatre by George Black, the Commissioner of the Yukon Territory. During an intermission Black was handed a telegram, which he read aloud: “England is in a state of war with Germany”. There was a shocked silence, then the local detachment of the Royal North West Mounted Police, dressed in scarlet for the occasion, leapt to their feet and began to sing “God Save the King”. Martha Black, the commissioner’s energetic and ultra-patriotic wife, described the reaction from the rest of the audience:

The effect was electrical. With one move, the audience was on its feet, and never in the world, I dare say, was our national anthem sung with greater fervour or more depth of feeling than in that moving picture house in that little town on the rim of the Arctic. Although 8,000 miles of mountain, land, and sea separated us from London, the heart of the Empire, yet England’s King was our King, and England’s Empire was our Empire. We realized as never before that we were not English, nor Irish, nor Scotch, nor Welsh, nor yet Canadian, but British, bound together by the Anglo-Saxon ties of blood.

It would have been quite understandable if the people of the Yukon had simply ignored the rapidly spreading conflagration in Europe. They were, as Martha Black noted, thousands of miles from the battlefront, and even farther removed from the continent’s diplomatic and political quarrels. The Klondike had once held centre stage, but the region had fallen on hard times, all but ignored now that the famously rich gravels of Eldorado and Bonanza Creeks had been largely worked out.

The Yukon in 1914 was a society far gone in decline. After the initial excitement of the gold rush ended in 1899, the world’s attention followed the gold-seekers out of the Territory, to the shores of Nome and the diggings in Alaska’s Tanana valley. In the Yukon, signs of decay could be seen everywhere by 1914: in the scores of abandoned homes, collapsing stores and warehouses, rusting equipment, and once-expensive city lots overgrown in summer with the thick and heavy grasses of the Dawson flood plain.

The call to arms, issued by Sam Hughes, the erratic and controversial Minister of Militia, struck a responsive chord in the Yukon, where a number of factors—continued economic decay, Yukoners’ desire to make Canadians take notice of them, and a strong affinity for the British Empire—combined to produce an enthusiastic response. Several hundred young men immediately rushed to enlist for overseas service. Some, no doubt, simply seized the occasion to escape the Yukon. A number of others were members of militia units in southern Canada and wished to join their comrades in the rush to the battlefields of Europe. Between 100 and 200 Yukoners volunteered in the first days of the war, to be joined by several hundred more who left the Yukon Territory by the end of 1914 to sign up in the south. One Royal North West Mounted Police constable, denied permission to sign up, even after he had offered to purchase his discharge, asked his superior officer if he would be chased if he decided to desert.

Members of the Mounted Police were particularly anxious to enlist. One of these was George Pearkes, a young Englishman who had come to Canada in 1906 and joined the RNWMP in 1913. After his recruit training, Pearkes was sent to the Yukon; when war broke out, he was stationed at Carcross. He immediately applied for permission to purchase his discharge from the force. Twelve of the 40 police in the Yukon were reservists in the British Army; these men were given discharges and left the Territory immediately, so Pearkes was forced to wait his turn. He chafed for months, until in February 1915 he was allowed to leave the force. He went to Vancouver and joined the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, beginning a military career that was to last 30 years and bring him a national reputation and the honour of a Victoria Cross, won for conspicuous bravery at Passchendaele.

The government and employers moved quickly to remove roadblocks to enlistment. Civil servants were granted leave with pay while on active duty, and mining regulations, which required a mine owner to work his claim part of each year, were waived for all military personnel until six months after the war. As many as 2,300 Yukoners volunteered for military service during the war—a third of the total population and more than three times the next highest per capita rate (Manitoba). While the scale of enlistment demonstrates the dominance of single men in the Yukon, it is also graphic evidence of the Yukon’s enthusiasm for the war.

Joe Boyle, the Yukon’s leading mining promoter, coordinated the best-known contribution of manpower to the Canadian forces. A native of Woodstock, Ontario, Boyle came to the Yukon during the gold rush and made his fortune. A former professional boxer, he was in 1914 the Yukon’s richest citizen and a great patriot. Shortly after war broke out, he organized a machine gun company of 54 men and paid $50,000 out of his own pocket to outfit them. The Yukon Machine Gun Company left Dawson City by steamer on 10 October 1914, after a wild community demonstration:

No such turnout and enthusiasm have prevailed in Klondike at any other time since the halcyon days when this camp swarmed with tens of thousands of adventurers who came in the first rush for gold. … At 9 o’clock in the evening [of 12 October 1914] … the troop assembled. ...A finer looking body of men never before was assembled north of fifty-three. … The boys proposed three cheers for the people of Dawson and yelled mightily. Then they gave three ringing cheers and a tiger for Joe Boyle, and many more for Joe. … With the exciting exhaust of steam, the kicking up of a foamy wake by the whirring wheel, the streaming of sparks and a column of smoke into the starry sky, the screaming of the steamer’s whistle and the jostling of the dancing waves against the shore, the scene was one of superb climax to the departure of the pride of Yukon.

Boyle, who longed to accompany his men to France, was considered too old at 49 for a field command. The Yukon contingent became part of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles, and then the Eaton Motor Machine Gun Brigade, while Boyle went on to an extraordinary freelance military and diplomatic career in Russia and Romania.

The Yukon machine gun company performed well in Europe: all of the original officers were awarded military crosses, 24 of the enlisted men received military medals and one man received a D.C.M. for conspicuous bravery at Passchendaele. Yukoners enthusiastically claimed these men as their own: the Whitehorse Star observed, “Had they not been of such splendid stuff they would not have deserved to be known as Yukoners … weaklings do not penetrate the Arctic frontier.”

In August 1916 George Black, the Yukon’s 44-year-old commissioner, resigned his post and petitioned for permission to recruit a second Yukon contingent. Although he managed to fill the ranks of the 17th Machine Gun Company, enthusiasm for war had abated somewhat, no doubt cooled by news of the horrors of trench warfare. Black called on the young men of the Yukon to see their duty and respond to the call:

You cannot fail to realize that it is the duty of every able-bodied man in Canada, who is not supporting helpless dependents, to offer his services to fight for the Empire in this great crisis. That Yukon has done well, that many of her Men have gone, that Yukon women are doing their duty, does not relieve you. It is a matter of individual manhood. Each must decide for himself whether or not he will play the part of a man. We have remained at home in safety while others have been fighting our battles for over two years, although no more obligated to do so than you or I have been. They have, for us, in many cases, made the supreme sacrifice. They are calling to you and to me for help. Are we going to fail them, or will you come with us?

George Black got his men, and he and 275 Yukoners headed off to battle. They were accompanied by Martha Black who, at the age of 50, crossed the Atlantic on a troop carrier, the only woman among 2,000 men, and remained in England, where she worked tirelessly on behalf of Canadian soldiers.

As George Black had observed, patriotism was not limited to those who volunteered for military service. Yukon women, prevented from shouldering arms for the Empire, sought other means of demonstrating their loyalty. The women participated in traditional ways—rolling bandages, knitting socks, and supplying tobacco and other “comforts” to the men overseas. Working through such organizations as the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, they also sought to mould public opinion in the Territory, serving as tireless propagandists for the Allied cause. I.O.D.E. chapters in Dawson City, Mayo and Whitehorse presented school prizes for student essays on patriotic themes, raised large sums for Belgian relief, and wrapped Christmas presents for the troops. The Whitehorse chapter, meeting in December 1915, opened with a reading of patriotic verse:

So that tyranny will fall
Canada will give her all;
With her dearest she will part
For the cause that stirs her heart.
Take this message to the Huns,
Canada’s behind the guns.

The assembled women then received a hundred copies of a pro-war pamphlet entitled Why Don’t You Wear a Uniform? which they distributed in town.

The I.O.D.E. did more than talk about the war. The George M. Dawson branch raised $6,000 towards the purchase of a hospital ship. In August 1915, Commissioner Black asked the Whitehorse chapter to contribute money for the purchase of a machine gun for the Yukon Machine Gun detachment. They raised $1,000, which matched a similar donation from the government employees, providing enough for the purchase of two guns.

Patriotic fervour was, in the Yukon as elsewhere, remarkably widespread. Virtually every social, political, cultural and athletic gathering held in the Yukon became a patriotic and fund-raising event. Whatever hesitations the men of military age might have had, support for the war effort did not diminish among the rest of the population. The ladies of the I.O.D.E. prayed at every meeting for an early end to the war, but they desperately wanted it to end with an Allied victory, and they fulminated against the Hun right up to Armistice day.

Yukoners were intensely proud of the fact that per capita contributions of cash to the war effort from their isolated region exceeded those from Canada as a whole, and usually by a wide margin. The Canadian Patriotic Fund, one of the more important of the war-relief organizations, reported in June 1916 that Yukoners had given $62,000 to the fund, or $8 per capita; the Canadian average was about $1. Contributions to the Red Cross followed a similar pattern: Yukoners donated $2 per capita, four times the Ontario rate, five times the rate on the Prairies, and forty times that of Quebec. War bond drives were also welcomed with remarkable enthusiasm. In the fall of 1918, the government announced a new drive with a target of $25,000 for the Whitehorse area. That figure was reached on the second day of the sale, and the final total exceeded $70,000.

World War I sent a number of bandwagons careering through Canadian society. Long-debated issues, such as women’s suffrage and the prohibition of alcohol, gained new currency from the patriotic rhetoric of war. Although the issue of female suffrage had generated little interest before the war, a memorial on the subject reached Yukon Territorial Council in April 1917; council quickly granted women the right to vote (women in Manitoba had received the vote a year earlier). Yukoners were less enthusiastic about the prohibition movement. Many other Canadians, anxious to participate, if only vicariously, in the sacrifices of war, voted to deny themselves the pleasures of the cup. Not so in the Yukon. Although the Territory was intensely patriotic, the use of alcohol was too deeply ingrained in the social fabric to be uprooted—even in the cause of thrashing the Kaiser. A plebiscite held in September 1916 on the question of Territorial prohibition saw the “wets” win over the “drys”, although by only three votes out of over 1,700 cast.

The Yukon was also involved, with a uniquely northern twist, in the great Unionist election of 1917. Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden had constructed a Unionist alliance with pro-conscription Liberals and called a December 1917 election. The Yukon contest was scheduled for the end of January 1918, more than a month after the national vote. The Yukon’s sitting member, Conservative Alfred Thompson, was nominated as a Unionist. But to the confusion of voters, F.T. Congdon, former Commissioner, longtime Liberal and political gadfly, returned to the Yukon and declared himself also to be a Unionist candidate. The situation was further complicated by the provisions of the Military Voters’ Act, which permitted the government to assign soldiers’ votes to the constituencies of their choosing. Congdon’s supporters suggested that the military votes be divided evenly; Thompson, the “official” Unionist, refused.

The resulting campaign was nasty. Thompson was accused of patronage abuses and Congdon of opportunism—both with good reason. When the ballots were counted, Congdon won, 776 to 666—not a large total vote for a Member of Parliament, but a considerable turnout for a territory with a non-native population of about 2,500. But in a ludicrous finale, the election outcome was soon turned on its head. Faced with the conflicting claims to Unionist support, the House of Commons voted to confirm Thompson as the official Unionist candidate, and to grant him 111 soldiers’ votes. Congdon’s 110-vote victory had been turned into a loss by a single vote, cast by a Canadian soldier in England or France.

The unquestioned zeal and commitment of the Yukon, which they repeatedly claimed was unmatched in Canada, ironically served to hasten the Territory’s decay. The departure of most of the Yukon’s young men, who left for military service or jobs in the southern defence factories, strangled the Yukon economy. Where, in times of war, could one find replacements for the men who operated the gold dredges and river steamers? The head of Canadian Klondyke complained that all the good workers had left, leaving only slackers and whiners. Equipment shortages were endemic, forcing further reductions in dredging activity. The Boyle Company, leaderless with Boyle away in Europe, collapsed into receivership.

The federal government, battling to cut expenditures, took note of the Yukon’s continued decline, and decided, with no consultation with the people of the Territory, that the area had too much government. In 1918, the position of commissioner was abolished, replaced by a controller, who was a sort of chief clerk for the Territory. The Territorial Council was abolished, only to be reinstated on a reduced, three-member basis following protests from Dawson. The Yukon’s already miniscule portion of the federal budget was cut in half, and a number of federal offices closed. Its political structures were in full retreat, saved only by a desperate struggle in the last days of a war that territorial residents had done everything to support.

For both Yukoners and Alaskans, there was one final cruel blow, this one coming only days before the Armistice. On 23 October 1918, the Princess Sophia, a Canadian Pacific steamship, departed from Skagway, Alaska, for Vancouver carrying over 250 passengers from the Yukon River basin—prominent citizens, seasonal migrants, rich and poor, soldiers, riverboat crews and a number of people departing the North forever. At 2:00 a.m. on the 24th, the ship ran on to Vanderbilt Reef and stuck fast. A flotilla from Juneau rushed to the scene, but weather prevented a rescue. At 5 p.m. on 25 October, frantic wireless messages announced the impending doom of the ship and its passengers. When the rescue boats reached Vanderbilt Reef the next morning, all that remained above water was 20 feet of mast. The passengers and crew—343 people in all—were dead. By a hideous irony, the Princess Alice, carrying the bodies of close to 200 victims, arrived in Vancouver on 11 November, the day of the Armistice.

The reaction of Yukoners to World War I was, in many respects, like that of most Canadians: initial enthusiasm, a burst of patriotism flushed with joyful celebrations of Empire, giving way to sorrow and despair as the list of the dead and wounded arrived from France. But for Yukoners, the war presented a special challenge—to prove themselves true Canadians, through their enlistments, charitable donations and total dedication to the war effort. The territory did itself proud, matching or exceeding other areas of Canada in its per capita contribution to the war effort. But there was a cruel irony hidden in that bravado and enthusiasm. Canada did not take particular notice of its far Northwest, and did not single out the district for special treatment. Instead, a cash-starved federal government looked to the Yukon as a potential saving, and cut a swath through the territorial civil service.

Even the number of war dead and wounded from the Yukon is difficult to determine. A great many of the volunteers from the region travelled south to enlist in units raised in Vancouver and other cities. Since few or none of them had been born in the Yukon, when they were wounded or killed they were simply counted with the casualties from other regions. A war memorial in Dawson recorded the names of some of the better-known casualties, but for the rest even the memory was lost by 1918. For Canada as a whole, the war might have served as a catalyst to nationhood, but for the Yukon, it accelerated the process of regional decline.

William R. Morrison is a Professor of History at the Centre for Northern Studies, Lakehead University. Kenneth S. Coates is in the Department of History. University of Victoria.

This article originally appeared in the October-November 1989 issue of The Beaver.

Battle Hymns

Far, far from Wipers I long to be.
Where German snipers can’t snipe at me.
Damp is my dug-out.
Cold are my feet.
Along came a whizz-bang
To sing me to sleep.
—Sung at Ypres, 1914.

I want to go home,
I want to go home.
I don’t want to go up the line any more,
where bullets and whizz-bangs they whistle and roar.
Take me over the sea,
where the Allemand can’t get at me.
Oh My! I don’t want to die!
I want to go home!
—A Soldier’s Song

Forward, Joe Soap’s Army,
Marching without fear.
With our old commander
Safely in the rear!
—A Soldier’s Song