Centenary of the Halifax Explosion: Time to disturb the sleep of the unjust

Act of God, the harbour pilot, the navy?

The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue

John Griffith Armstrong
(Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002)
Hardcover, 256 pp, 6 x 9 inches, 16 b/w photos, maps
Index, Bibliography and Chapter end-notes
ISBN 0-7748-0890-X
New in Paperback: July, 2003
ISBN 0774808918 $24.95

Reviewed by GARY ZATZMAN*

Painting of the Halifax Explosion

Was it an “accident”? Did the harbour-pilot do it? Why did the British Admiralty send such a dangerous ship into the harbour of Halifax in the first place? Why was it diverted from New York? Why did the Americans and the French load explosive cargo in such a way? How much did the navy know – and when did they know it? The Halifax Explosion of 6 December 1917, the most destructive man-made explosion before the dropping of The Bomb, left half the population homeless, levelled residential areas of the working class, the poor, parts of the African-Nova Scotian community at Africville and the Mi’kmaq community at Tufts Cove, discredited the reputations of a number of officials and continues to inflame controversy to this day. John Griffith Armstrong’s The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue heaps another faggot on this fire. Focusing on the official inquiry following the disaster, Armstrong clarifies the role and responsibility of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN).

Officially in charge of military movements in the port of Halifax, the navy for many years was unofficially blamed for failing to prevent the disaster. The Halifax Herald, owned by William Dennis, launched continuous broadsides against the navy, stoking the flames of public sensationalism. Written in a style that maintains a readable balance between academic caution and the journalistic desire to tell the story, the book’s scholarly apparatus comes up to the usual high standard of the UBC Press. The author makes the case for partial rehabilitation of the navy – specifically the reputation of Frederick Wyatt, acting commander of the RCN at Halifax during these events – with authority and conviction.

Armstrong is the first scholar to gain access to the complete archive of naval records now housed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. Staying well within the trails others may yet blaze through this treasure trove, he discharges his responsibility as an historian not to sanitize or burnish reputations unduly, but scarcely goes any further. Unable or unwilling to break new ground, his presentation thus (10 reinforces earlier scholars’ exempting the Admiralty from any serious blame or responsibility, and 92) continues to avoid discussing the attitude of British military leaders’ to Canadians – in or out of uniform – and the toll such prejudice may have taken on their decisions – and thus on Canadian lives.

There is the courage of those who fought bravely in war. But then there is the outlook of the contemporary Anglo-Canadian political-military leadership who issued their orders. Here the term “courageous” is not what springs to mind. Perhaps their spirits repose no more nor less fitfully than those of the youth left behind in their tens of thousands on the battlefields of northern Europe. However, unlike those forced to follow orders into battle, theirs is the sleep of the unjust. At the highest Canadian levels, many chose to lie down with dogs – the colonial master – knowing they could wake up with fleas, while those under their command might never wake up again. December 6 made civilians equal in death to those sent abroad in uniform – not necessarily as casualties of the Kaiser (although there were German agents inside the port, however little the inquiry was ever able to learn about their activities), but certainly as so much expendable colonial cannon-fodder for His Majesty. [1]

True: the Explosion and its aftermath tested Haligonians’ resilience. Many rose to the occasion. But it also demonstrated the utter unfitness to rule of the British colonial authorities and their toadies. “Ancient history,” some may snort; “flogging a dead horse!” Yet, however dead this poisoned horse is declared to be, until it’s actually flogged, who can be certain?

Almost 2000 innocent people were slaughtered and another 7000 Haligonians maimed – almost one-fifth the population. This blood is on the hands of the colonialists. To fudge responsibility for the Explosion by declaring it “an accident,” “an act of God” or to palm it off on the harbour pilot service will not do. This was a war crime. It flowed naturally from the predatory impulse of imperial authority. This Empire would pursue and fight atavistically, down to the last colonial soldier or civilian, for the selfish interests of a handful of financial titans. Admit this – the sole consistent thread linking everything in that horrific moment  and how and why the authorities could have left so much to chance in outfitting Halifax as a place d’armes for the Great War in the first place then logically follows.

In the footnotes of the second chapter (“Towards the Unthinkable”), where the buildup to the Mont BlancImo collision and explosion is reconstructed hour by hour, and even minute-by-minute, beginning the afternoon of 5 December, just how much was left to chance emerges almost incidentally in telling details illustrating the military authorities’ inability, and civilian economy’s unreadiness, to provide a prepared or coordinated response when the tragedy everyone knew could or might happen actually started to unfold. But the author remains oblivious to this deeper significance of his own research. This blind spot is the book’s single gravest weakness.

The author documents (especially in Chapter 6, “Of Sailors, Lawyers, Goats and Newspapers”) wartime political imperatives of the government that tended to circumscribe the RCN’s choices. But in the interests of “balance,” he again follows previous scholars in taking Borden off the hook insofar as he was confronted (as Prime Minister) with having to decide among equally unpalatable policies. This introduces a questionable bias.

Certain memos – a kind of “reality check” – were prepared for the government by the Dominion wrecks commissioner, Capt. Louis Demers. The ones Armstrong rescued from obscurity implicate the entire Borden cabinet in deciding, collectively, to ignore naval service complaints about the chaotic standards of harbour pilotage at Halifax. He shows us this smoking gun only to remark: “Whether the prime minister would have supported any pre-explosion initiative to resolve the navy’s problems in controlling the pilots in his riding is problematic.” (p. 195)

Surely such resistance to concluding the screamingly obvious – that Borden and Co. were aware of, and indifferent to, the sufferings their decisions could inflict – is even more problematic. Under rules of the special war crimes tribunal convened to indict Slobodan Milosevic, should Borden not also be put in the dock?

1. he knew explicitly how ad hoc the existing arrangements were for public safety;

2. he implicitly understood the potential for civil mayhem that any mishandling of ordnance might unleash;

3. he ordered no special advance budgetary or other provision;

4. he brought no pressure on the British Admiralty before the Explosion to exercise special care; and

5. he dismissed calls to bring damage claims after the war against Britain or France (responsible for the Mont Blanc).

Exonerating the navy has its place. But does this restore the proper focal point to the overall picture, or does it become instead just another source of further distortion? Canadians, including especially those who volunteer for military service, want to uphold peace, a peace that is genuine and lasting. Can this be achieved without a clear-eyed recognition of what a war crime is, or that war criminals sometimes may speak English as their mother-tongue? Evidence has even surfaced of American foreknowledge of a plan to detonate munition stores at Halifax in late 1917 – including a decision not to intervene to prevent it.

On Remembrance Day, on 6 December and at other dates of the calendar, the war vets’ message “Never again!” resounds increasingly as a just and necessary repudiation of aggressive wars in general. Why not extend this repudiation to the question of foreign domination and dictate over where, whether and for what causes Canadians are supposed to live or die? Isn’t it about time to disturb the sleep of the unjust?


1.When it came to men in uniform, this was certainly the mentality guiding the military leadership of Haig, Kitchener and the other leading British generals, throughout the war, at Vimy, at Passchendaele, at Beaumont-Hamel, even at the British Army firing squads which executed Canadian deserters with the knowledge and approval of the Canadian government.

The English anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon captured the features of this outlook in his 1916 poem Base Details:

If I were old and bald and short of breath

I’d live with scarlet majors at the base,

And speed glum heroes up the line to death:

You’d see me with my puffy, petulant face,

Guzzling and gulping, eating in the best hotels;

“Poor young chap,” I’d say, “Used to know his father well.

“Yes we’ve lost heavily in that last scrap.”

And when the war is done, and youth stone dead,

I’d toddle safely home and die – in bed.

*Gary Zatzman, a historian and co-author at Why Our Education System Must Change (Wiley, 2013) and other works, was a contributing writer to Shunpiking Magazine, in which this article originally appeared as part of a Dossier on the Halifax Explosion, December 1, 2006. Sightly edited for this publication.


1 Comment

Filed under Canada, History, No Harbour for War (Halifax)

One response to “Centenary of the Halifax Explosion: Time to disturb the sleep of the unjust

  1. Pingback: 102nd Anniversary of the Halifax Explosion | Tony Seed's Weblog

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