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The Halifax Explosion & The Royal:
Canadian Navy: Inquiry & Intrigue


by John Griffith Armstrong
248 pages,
ISBN: 077480890X


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Lessons From An Old Disaster
by Malcolm MacLeod

The Halifax explosion of December 1917 made a huge hole in the history of families and community at the East coast capital. Eighteen hundred died. Approaching so calamitous a crater, it is not surprising that writers have found it difficult to trace more than a portion of its circumference. Eighty-five years later, we are still waiting for an account that is thoroughly comprehensive, reliable and definitive.

These points are suggested by John Armstrong in his Introduction to the latest book on the subject. The cumbersome title he chose¨eight whole words¨shows that the author makes no claim to have done more than study one hitherto-neglected part of the disaster story. In a scholarly, carefully-written treatment, he presents one more viewpoint on a catastrophe still waiting to be fully comprehended.

The first thoughtful account of the disaster was Catastrophe and Social Change (1920) by Samuel Prince. Part of his sociology doctorate at Columbia University, Prince's book is a mixture of hope and pessimism. In unsettling the status-quo, he theorizes, large-scale death and destruction necessarily bring about change. It will be change for the better, however, only if guided by proper principles from the infant sciences of sociology and social work. As far as the deadly day itself was concerned, Prince reports the explosion was so astounding it tended to overwhelm normal qualities of altruism and courage. Brave men fled, and the strong wept.

Another early account¨written in 1918, although its publication was delayed by sixty years¨was much more hopeful, or naive, about human nature. The Halifax Disaster, by Archibald MacMechan, resulted from a commission given the Dalhousie University English professor to collect eye-witness testimony during the early stages of grief and clean-up. Within six months MacMechan had written 95% of the narrative he planned. Among the mutations of relief bureaucracy, however, he lost official support for his work, never received a cent of salary, and did not find a publisher in Canada or the United States.

MacMehan's work finally appeared in print as a centrepiece of the documentary collection edited by Graham Metson in 1978, The Halifax Explosion. The primary evidence on which it relies¨122 "personal narratives"¨was haphazardly selected. Upper- and middle-class slants on the disaster were taken from numerous students at Dalhousie, and neighbours of his in the south end. From the city's north end, however¨the mostly working-class district of which a good part was obliterated by the blast¨he collected very little. His intention, in the final chapter never written, was to give the story a happy ending, "The city heroic".

In 1962 appeared The Town that Died, by Michael J. Bird. This discussion, enriched by a 45-year flood of memories and reflections, was pretty well limited to just the day of the explosion. It was also weakened by the author's failure to cite sources, and by theatrics such as invented dialogue.

Then came the works of Janet Kitz, especially Shattered City (1989). Her approach consisted of reversing Bird's priorities. Three chapters on the actual disaster are followed by four times as many dealing with "Road to recovery" and "Return to normal". It is a satisfying and artistic monograph, but not rock-reliable or user-friendly. There is no index, and although Kitz shows in the Preface that she is well familiar with all pertinent sources, like Bird she has no footnotes to help later scholars trace out disputed lines of evidence.

The difficulty of assembling a thoroughly comprehensive history of the explosion is exhibited by the wide range of subjects embraced in the 1994 publication of papers from a well-conceived conference held on its 75th anniversary. Ground Zero: A Reassessment of the 1917 Explosion in Halifax Harbour, edited by Alan Ruffman and Colin Howell, is a collection of two dozen articles following at least eight different avenues of investigation:

˛ the accident itself (marine navigation)
˛ scientific aspects (physics of explosives, tidal waves)
˛ emergency measures and disaster response
˛ comparison with other outstanding tragedies
˛ literary expressions
˛ medical and public health aspects
˛ legal repercussions (inquiries, lawsuits)
˛ reconstruction and town planning

The editors wished they could have included more in Ground Zero¨Military response to the disaster, its impact on the economy and the war effort, a thorough bibliography, and a firmer estimate of the death toll. They might have also added: historiography, folklore, and demography¨not just a reliable death-toll but an analysis which would be important in comparing Halifax with other disasters. At the World Trade Center in 2001, for example, almost all fatalities were working-age adults. By contrast, in Halifax all ages and classes were killed or maimed, without regard for gender, age or professional status: dad at work, mother who stayed home with the babies, the babies too of course, and their older sisters and brothers at school.

So there are still important features of this catastrophe that need probing and quantification. But the demographer/historian/ bibliographer/political scientist/sociologist/scientist/town planner/legal scholar/ literary critic, who could digest and synthesize everything that is necessary for attaining a full understanding, may be difficult to recruit.

Armstrong does not claim to be this polymath. Rather, he comes across as a careful historian (as well as political scientist, judging from perceptive comments about organizational behaviour). The book's major strengths are a well-defined and limited subject area, reliance on valuable sources not used before, and the orientation of the disaster as an event of national and not merely local significance.

Armstrong's work addresses one of the gaps noted by Ruffman/Howell: the military response to the disaster. A sound structure of eight chapters details the naval situation in the harbour on the eve of the explosion; then the "unthinkable" detonation; "Through the grim day"; the navy's success in helping bring the port back to normal wartime operation; and how the RCN fared (badly) in the subsequent stage of blame-affixing. The time-span is just five months. Thus it is not one of those self-inflating books that promise too much, and engage in serious omissions. Rather, it is thorough and complete about its real subject, the navy.

The sources used, which previous historians of the explosion did not search out, chiefly consist of files of federal institutions at Ottawa: naval service head-quarters, the office of Prime Minister Borden, many others. There are signs of research at the Public Record Office (England), the Public Archives of Nova Scotia and even, once, the Connecticut Historical Society. Armstrong's work is massively documented from such sources. Two-thirds of its 660 notes refer to documents held either at the National Archives of Canada, or the Directorate of History & Heritage, Canadian Forces Headquarters. In addition, there are several dozen newspaper references, a few private letters, and judicious use of published studies.

Because of this meticulous research, the work is modestly revisionist, correcting some errors or false impressions of earlier writers. For example, USS Old Colony was not an actual hospital ship¨not until she was transformed on the afternoon of the disaster through the import of surgical equipment and personnel from various sources, including the wrecked RCN hospital on shore. Although some commentators indicate it would be nice to think so, Armstrong insists that in this death-dealing crisis, "heroic responses were not universal." He gives the example of HMCS Niobe, near-wrecked a half-kilometer from the explosion. "Some men were overcome by shock and fear." A seaman recalls how an officer megaphoned for "all hands to stand fast... remember the Birkenhead." "Someone yells back at him, to hell with you and the Birkenhead, we got wives and kids ashore, so there was a general stampede for the gangplank...."

The most important revision concerns what knowledgeable people expected when they learned Mont Blanc was on fire. An ingrained part of explosion folklore¨more than ingrained, treasured¨holds that telegraph operator Vincent Coleman stayed at his post warning an approaching train to stay away, despite knowing a cataclysmic explosion was imminent. Armstrong, however, argues unassailably from documents that only Mont Blanc's own crew realized the magnitude of what might happen next. One minute before blast time the office of Rear-Admiral Bertram Chambers, British Director of convoy operations, received a phoned report of a ship on fire. There was no mention of what the cargo might be. When the disorienting concussion came, Chambers himself "thought perhaps the Germans had blown up the Citadel." The correction Armstrong gives, since reputations are involved, is a model of gentlemanly sensitivity.

Courageous men doing what they were trained to do died without knowing the full extent of the peril. This in no way diminishes their heroism.

Armstrong's adoption of the national perspective, and use of Ottawa-stored documents, has richly improved the understanding of many important aspects. He finds this is a case where¨as well as efficiently channelling relief¨federal officials and bureaucrats bent muscular efforts to do what administrators do best: "spin" information into favourable interpretations, put reputation ahead of accuracy, and scapegoat.

"Goat" in this sense, in fact, features in the titles of two chapters dealing with Inquiry that rushed to judgement. The scape-goat chosen, a decision backed by Canada's navy, was Commander Frederick Wyatt, recently transferred from the British Navy (and divorced, something not quite done 80 years ago). Wyatt was the RCN's Chief examining officer, theoretically in charge of all ship movements in harbour, although civilian pilots had long ago stopped reporting what they were up to. He rarely knew what ships were outbound, as was in fact the case on this occasion. He was nevertheless held responsible and became the only person tried (and acquitted) for manslaughter after these 1800 deaths .

Armstrong's interpretation of the "national" perspective is that of the political scientist; a social historian would find his work quite deficient in this respect. In daily news reports, for example, if we are told a foreign airliner has crashed, we are also told that 3 of those on board were Canadians, 6 were Americans, 10 were ubiquitous Japanese tourists, and so on. What "national" information can we learn from studying the dead at Halifax?

What percentage were: native to the city? migrants from other parts of the province or region? natives of central or western Canada? foreigners from Newfoundland, the United States or elsewhere? This kind of analysis would lead to rich insights about forces of urbanization and federal consolidation after 50 years of confederation, and the social aspects of the national war effort projected through the port. This calamitous event was of interest to Ottawa, especially since the navy was in charge of the harbour where it happened. But to what extent was it a national event in terms of individuals and families intimately affected by it? Armstrong does not seem to notice there can be more to a national vision than simply messages and messengers shuttling back and forth between the provinces and the capital.

Popular memory of the Halifax disaster is fading fast. As new studies sporadically appear¨while older studies focused on local matters like suffering or reconstruction, now we get polished invitations to look at things from a wider perspective¨interest is for a while reinvigorated. The effect, however, is felt only in the relatively small circle of readers and history-buffs. How can lasting common knowledge of this world-class event be secured?

Let language assist scholarship. New Yorkers may decide to continue using "World Trade Center" to refer to the area where those twin towers, tombs, once stood in order never to forget what happened. At Halifax, the 100-block area where horror was at its maximum on that dark December day, should be called by the name that was familiar when the navy's home port became the field of screams¨"the Devastated Area". If you name it in daily speech they will remember. ˛

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