Filling the Gaps in Our History

“Everyone talks about the Goldrush. I’m interested in the gaps in history. The points in between,” says Yukon writer Michael Gates, author of From the Klondike to Berlin. Published last month, this book is, perhaps surprisingly, the first to offer an in depth account of the Yukon’s contribution to World War I.

Gates says that there was a lot of information available. Low hanging fruit, ripe for the picking.

Researching and writing the book was a “Pretty amazing journey,” says Gates. There were times when he found delving into the “otherworldly” conditions endured by Yukoners in the trenches difficult to take.

Gates had to sort through hundreds of pages of material and decide what added to the narrative.

“The Yukon was punching above it’s weight in every way,” he says. “There were around 1,100 volunteers coming from a territory with a population of maybe 5,000 people. I couldn’t write a book about 1,100 people so I chose who to profile based on best accounting. I’m hoping that prodding minds will investigate further.”

The book explores several characters. Gates describes how Grizzly Bear Jim Christie’s Yukon lifestyle helped him in the battlefield.

“This applied to most Yukoners. For example everyone in the Yukon has a rifle, they scored very high in rifle shooting. They had the skillsets,” says Gates.

Christie famously survived a bear attack that ripped apart his face and went on to serve with distinction during the war.

Yukoner Joe Boyle made a name for himself in Russia through the financing of a machine gun battery. He then went on to rescue the crown jewels and national treasury of Romania, became instrumental in the negotiation of a treaty between Russia and Romania and organized a network of spies. A man constantly in search of adventure, he abandoned the Klondike for his more exciting European career. “This doesn’t surprise me given his character,” says Gates.

The Yukon’s treasured poet Robert Service volunteered as an ambulance driver. Service went on to write Rhymes of a Red Cross Man which became one of the the most popular books of poetry about the War. While overseas Service contributed to the Dawson Daily News.

“He captured the inhumanity of war in his work,” says Gates.

Also featured in the book are George Black, the commissioner of the Yukon at the time, who brought 250 Yukon volunteers along with him to the battlefields of Europe, and his wife, Martha Black, who accompanied him. She became an advocate and mother figure to the Yukon’s men in uniform.

Gates says it’s interesting to note that all but two of the first Yukon volunteers who signed up to fight in the war listed their own nationality as British. The shift towards a Canadian identity was still ongoing when the War was declared in 1914. Gates includes the events going on at home in the Yukon in his historical account of the wartime period. Important issues of the day included the women’s suffrage movement, conscription and the debate over prohibition of alcohol. The book is a must for anyone with an interest in the history of World War I but its real strength lies in giving life to the long unsung Yukon characters who gave their all in the War to End All Wars.

Michael Gates’ book From the Klondike to Berlin is available for loan at the Whitehorse Public Library and for sale at Mac’s Fireweed Books on Main Street.

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