During the Great War of 1914-1918, nearly a thousand Yukoners enlisted
for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, or fought for Britain, France and other Allied countries. Of these only a small handful were women. One woman who did not formally enlist to serve in the armed forces, but played an extremely important role in the Yukon’s war effort, was Martha Black.
Mrs. Black, at the time, was the Yukon’s First Lady, that is, the wife of the most senior official in the territory, the Commissioner, George Black. She was pivotal in establishing the Imperial Order, Daughters of the Empire (IODE) in March of 1913.
When war was declared August 4, 1914, the IODE immediately went into high gear to raise money for various patriotic funds. Within a short time, several more chapters of the IODE were established, including one named after Mrs. Black. For the next two years, there wasn’t a fund raising event in Dawson City that she didn’t support.
When Commissioner Black raised a company of volunteers to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Mrs. Black accompanied them to Victoria, then overseas to England, acting as an unofficial den-mother. She was an unstoppable force who overcame the objections of the most senior officials and sailed with her husband and son Lyman aboard a troopship carrying 1,500 men.
In England, she volunteered in the Prisoners of War Department, the Red Cross and the YMCA. She administered the Yukon Comfort Fund and visited the Yukon sick and wounded, who had been returned from the battlefields to recuperate. Even her husband George was wounded during the Battle of Amiens in August of 1918.
She visited the men of the Yukon Infantry Company who were stationed in southern England. They allowed her to fire one of the machine guns during one visit and she achieved a high score for accuracy. On Christmas Day, 1917, she visited George and his men at their barracks and partook of the sumptuous Christmas dinner that had been prepared.
During the time she was in England, she delivered hundreds of illustrated talks about her beloved Yukon to convalescing soldiers, service and church groups and gatherings sponsored by the YMCA. She was recognized for her work with Yukon wildflowers and her lectures on the Yukon by being made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
When she returned to Canada after the war, she supported her husband when he was elected to parliament. From 1935 to 1940, she was the Yukon’s Member of Parliament. In 1993, she was recognized as having been of national significance at a plaque ceremony in Dawson City.
You can learn more about the amazing Mrs. Black and her remarkable wartime service at the The North and World War I conference, which will be taking place in Whitehorse from May 9 to 12. A World War I study tour to Dawson City will take place from May 13 to 15.
For more information and to register for the conference go to HeritageYukon.ca and click on “North and First World War.”
Commemorating the Yukon Heroes of World War I
The Yukon Historical & Museums Association is coordinating a series of initiatives to commemorate the First World War and explore its impact on the North. The events include the North and First World War Conference on May 9 to 12 and a Dawson Study Tour on May 13 to 15.