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The Great Halifax Explosion page 2


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Another eyewitness who insisted that never even on the battlefields of France had he seen such a ghastly spectacle of carnage was Lieut.-Col. Good, of Fredericton. "All that could be seen for a great circumference," said he, "were burning buildings, great mounds of iron and brick in the streets, and dead bodies. In the sidewalks men, women and children were huddled together, the living with the dead. Many people with fractured skulls or broken bones were lying unattended in the streets. I set out to aid the injured, and for a moment stopped before a wooden frame house that was aflame. An old man stood helpless, crying that his wife was somewhere in the building. With two others I managed to enter the house, and found what appeared to be the half-burned body of the old woman. We brought it into the open and beckoned the old man. For several seconds he stared bewildered, then he said tremulously, 'Yes, that's my poor wife.' There were many hundreds of similar cases."

The narrative of Mr. Shelton goes on to emphasise in graphic fashion the bewilderment which succeeded the utterly unexpected blow of the explosion: "'Heavens, that is some explosion!' a man said to me in my office on the water-front at Dartmouth when the first great shock of the detonation rolled through the building. Instincts would have attributed the shock to an earthquake if we had not been living in a period of Armageddon.... The plate-glass window crashed in; the doors blew down; the walls of the wooden building cracked and bent inwards.... I rushed to the street, there to meet scores of terror-stricken men, women and children, bespattered with blood and crying out in anguish for some explanation of the catastrophe."

Fortunately it was found possible to fight the fire down under control that same afternoon, or the tragedy of Halifax might have been even vaster than it already was. Even at this early stage it was certain that well over 1,000 people must have lost their lives, and of the injured it was quite impossible to form any reliable estimate, since, as has been mentioned, the hospitals had been unable to cope with more than a proportion of the applicants for surgical attention. However, the work of organising relief measures was well under way now. Hundreds of rescue parties were labouring feverishly among the ruins to liberate the victims who still lay imprisoned; other workers were gathering up the corpses that lay heaped in the streets or floated on the waters of the bay. And as the sad task of these last progressed, it became increasingly probable that the total of the dead might never be known except approximately, at any rate so far as Richmond was concerned, where often nothing but burned bones were left of whole families.

Everything humanly possible was done to relieve the sufferings of the thousands of poor souls who found themselves suddenly homeless. The Academy of Music and various other public buildings were thrown open to them, the troops cheerfully surrendered their barracks to the women and children and went to live in tents on the common. Moreover, aid was being rushed to the afflicted city from every point of the compass. Half an hour after the explosion a special train had left Moncton with doctors, nurses and Red Cross supplies, followed by another bearing fire-fighting equipment and with instructions to pick up all available fire appliances en route.

Offers of relief came pouring in from all the other chief towns of Canada, great as the financial strain already was at that late period of the War years, while Mr. J. D. Reid, the Minister of Railways, gave orders to push every possible aid to Halifax, and the Department of Militia sent trainloads of supplies of every description. The Lord Mayor of London opened a fund which in a few weeks had risen to nearly 130,000. Every component part of the Empire hastened to take its share in the work of mercy. The New Zealand Government made a grant of 10,000, the Australian and Canadian Governments voted 50,000 each, and the Straits Settlements and Federated Malay States together contributed 35,000. From the United States, too, came the most generous assistance: Massachusetts, Boston and New York each dispatched a whole corps of physicians, surgeons and nurses, with lavish equipment of medical stores and clothing, and in the House of Representatives a joint resolution appropriated the sum of $5,000,000 for the relief of the Canadian city. Messages of sympathy were received from His Majesty the King, from President Wilson, and from the governments of all Allied or neutral countries, while Sir Robert Borden, who was at Prince Edward Island on an election tour when news reached him of the disaster, set out for the scene without an hour's delay.

Those days following the calamity were full of happenings marked by the height of tragedy and pathos. One specially sad case was that of Private Hanneberry, who had just returned from service overseas with the 63rd Battalion. Hanneberry was found digging frantically in a cellar at Richmond. "This is where my home was," he explained, still digging; "I'm sure I heard a moan a moment ago." Willing hands came to the assistance of the poor fellow, and presently from under the kitchen stove was drawn his eighteen-months-old baby, alive and uninjured save for a few slight surface wounds, the protruding ashpan having miraculously preserved the little thing when the house collapsed. But Hanneberry's joy was destined to be shortlived, for a little more digging Drought to light the corpses of his wife and their five other children.

As ill-fortune would have it, the sufferings of the 25,000 homeless - for that was their number - were intensified beyond measure by terrible storms of snow and rain, with an Arctic temperature which sheathed the burnt-out area in ice, while the streets were covered with a white carpet three feet in thickness. This handicap came near to crushing the hearts of the valiant workers struggling already against such overwhelming odds. About the sights he witnessed under these conditions, too, Mr. Shelton has something to tell us. "Next day," he relates, "a furious blizzard swept over the scene of the disaster, mantling in snow the wrecked buildings and the dead. It was a pathetic scene.... The relatives of the dead, like ants on a hill, were swarming over the debris looking for their loved ones."

Estimates of the loss of life and the total of injured, as well as of the material damage done by the explosion, continued to vary greatly for some time, but by the loth it was possible to publish some official figures. Allowing for a reasonable margin of error, these put the number of killed at 1,500 and of the injured at 8,000, while 2,000 more were missing; some 3,000 dwellings had been destroyed, and the loss to property was computed at $30,000,000. The burned area covered two square miles; the ships in the dockyard had suffered terribly, and though the great new piers in the south part of the city were practically untouched, six others had been utterly ruined.

Emergency supplies, however, continued to arrive steadily; every day relief trains which had been blockaded in the snowdrifts were succeeding in making their way through to the stricken city. Such crowds came flocking in to help that the situation with regard to food and accommodation became most acute, so that eventually the Mayor had to issue a proclamation requesting even friends and relatives of the victims to stay away. Assistance in money and kind was still being sent from all parts of the world, and eventually the Relief Committee had no less than 4,000,000 in hand. Two or three of the gifts received demand special mention. Among these was the sum of 186 contributed to the Mansion House fund by schoolchildren of Otago and Ohakune, New Zealand; also 2,000 boxes of chocolates sent by the Duchess of Devonshire to Halifax children who had suffered in the disaster. I think we must give the palm, though, to an eleven-year-old Toronto girl who sent a brick to the officer in charge of the reconstruction work, accompanied by an ingenious letter in which she said she had read in the newspapers that the Committee "wanted the people to help to build up Halifax," and consequently desirea to make her contribution to the work!

In those days every one's nerves were on edge, and most events of an unpleasant nature were easily referable to the enemy. We need not be surprised, therefore, that a wretched foreigner, believed to be a German, who arrived at Halifax from Boston with some relief supplies, was arrested because a map of the city chanced to be in his possession.

Finally, an article published in the Cologne Gazette soon after the catastrophe is worth quoting if only for the illustration it provides of the Germans' persistent misconception of British War-psychology:

"Not without emotion," ran the precious screed, "can one note the news of the devastation of the hard-hit Canadian town. And yet is it not better that these munitions should not have reached the theatre of war and the trenches, there to be used against our people in its hard struggle for freedom and independence - our people, which did not seek the war, and also did not produce these munitions, which have now struck those who sought to harass us with them? From the point of view of humanity the event is regrettable, but we hope that the effect will be salutary, since an irrefutable object-lesson will thus bring the terrors of the War home to a place where people felt themselves comfortably secure, far as they are from the guns. Canada is getting war experience at the front and also at Halifax. We hope that its lesson may open the eyes of the warlike section of the people to the fact that humanity - even Canadian humanity - has higher ideals to defend than those represented by Wilson, Lloyd George and other business politicians."

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