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Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax

Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Did a Typo Help End World War II?
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When Geoffrey Tandy was summoned to Bletchley Park in 1939, he had no idea what to expect. A volunteer at the Royal Navy Reserves, Tandy wanted to serve Britain however he could as World War II threatened his country’s existence. But as a cryptogamist for the National History Museum, Tandy wasn’t quite sure where he fit in. Cryptogamists studied algae, a skill that wasn’t in high demand when it came to military strategizing.

Tandy was greeted by representatives for the Ministry of Defence, who seemed excited at the prospect of Tandy joining the top-secret efforts at Bletchley—too excited, really, about someone whose expertise was in seaweed.

At some point, it occurred to Tandy that the Ministry may have made a mistake. The exact details are lost to history, but it became clear that someone had mistaken his job of cryptogamist for a cryptogramist—a codebreaker, which is exactly what men like Alan Turing were doing at Bletchley. The mistake led to a moss specialist being deposited into one of the most intense covert operations of the war.

Generally useless to the group, Tandy did nothing for two years. Then something incredible happened.

In 1941, Allied forces torpedoed German U-boats and salvaged some important documents from the wreckages, including papers that instructed users of the German Enigma Machine how to unscramble messages. The problem: The papers were waterlogged, damaged, and in dire need of quick restoration before they could be put to use.

The Ministry needed someone who was an expert in drying out water-damaged, fragile materials. Someone who may have had training in preserving algae in such a manner. They needed someone like Tandy.

Using absorbent materials gathered from a museum, Tandy dried the pages and returned them to legibility. The Bletchley codebreakers were able to use the information to crack German communication, allowing Allied forces to get a glimpse of their strategy. The deciphering likely hastened the end of the war by two to four years, saving millions of lives in the process.

It’s not quite clear how Tandy’s fortunate misplacement occurred. Did a recruiter see a typographical error, with Tandy’s occupation getting the extra “R”? Or did someone simply misread it? Either way, the misunderstanding turned out to be quite fortuitous. Referencing the story in a 2012 speech, British politician William Hague said it demonstrated “just how useful wide expertise can be.”

[h/t: @floschecther]

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WWI Centennial: Operation Mars Fails
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 305th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

After a cataclysmic week beginning with the biggest bombardment in history on March 21, 1918, Germany’s spring offensive Operation Michael—chief strategist Erich Ludendorff’s final gamble to destroy the Allies before American troops arrived in Europe in large numbers—had conquered a large part of northern France but was now in danger of stalling. To the south the massive Eighteenth Army had captured Montdidier but outrun its rail supply lines, and by the end of March faced new threats as French commanders Henri Philippe Petain and Ferdinand Foch moved up the First, Third, and Tenth Armies to plug the gap with the British Expeditionary Force to the north.

WWO Operation Mars
Erik Sass

In the middle of the expanding German salient the Second Army captured Albert but faced supply problems over the wrecked Somme battlefields of 1916, with shell shortages again slowing the offensive. Meanwhile British resistance stiffened as the Third Army under General Byng dug in before Amiens and Arras. Australian troops arrived in emergency troop convoys, once again enabled by the BEF’s fleet of requisitioned London buses. Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, remembered day and night travel along tiny roads leading the battlefield:

"We’re in a long stream of buses; miles of transport, all leading south. Away on the horizon, clouds of dust. We know that the roads are jammed with traffic as all available modes of transport are rushing men, guns, shells, and food south. Village after village flits by as our cloud of dust rolls over them and we are gone. Night is upon us and still the buses move on."

The arrival of Allied reinforcements on all three sides of the German salient made a breakthrough increasingly improbable, as French and British troops fought savagely to reestablish contact and contain the German thrust (below, British troops with barbed wire).

British troops in World War I with barbed wire
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Desperate to restore Operation Michael’s momentum, on March 28, 1918 Ludendorff ordered Operation Mars, a second planned offensive by the German Second and Seventeenth Armies against the British Third Army around Arras. Mars, an attack by 11 German divisions against British defenses along the Scarpe River, was intended to initiate a German pivot northeast, beginning just south of Arras, threatening to envelop the British Expeditionary Force from the rear and cut it off from its sources of supply, the English Channel ports (below, the ruins of the Arras cathedral).

Arras cathedral, World War I
Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

However, the British Third Army had taken elaborate precautions, beginning with the effective adoption of “defense in depth,” a strategy pioneered by the Germans, in which most troops remained in a reserve zone behind a lightly held “battle zone,” consisting of multiple trenches and strongpoints to break up attacking enemy formations and sap their momentum. Elsewhere Operation Mars called for renewed attacks by the German Eighteenth Army against the French forces guarding Amiens to the south, but here the Germans found the French holding the well-prepared Amiens Line of heavy fortifications, first constructed in 1915.

The result was a complete failure, as the German attack collapsed in less than a day. Fighting continued along the front for another week, until Ludendorff finally called off the offensive on April 5. In his diary entry on March 30, Herbert Sulzbach, a German officer, described intense combat as German attacks were brought up short by determined French defenders:

"It’s evening, I’m writing down my impressions of this day, which must have been the nastiest of any blessed day in the whole war, full of many dreadful situations, each one following closely on the one before: At 7:30 our infantry attacked, and by way of reply to that a hail of machine-gun fire comes out of Le Mesnil, worse than I’ve ever known … I bring the battery up behind, and now we’ve got so much shrapnel raining down on us that you can hardly see or hear anything. The machine-gun fire, chattering away at us from only a few hundred meters' distance, keeps on as heavy as ever. All hell has been let loose. The French seem to be transformed; they must have thrown completely fresh, properly rested troops into this sector, and a large number of them too."

Sulzbach and the Germans soon found that the French Army, relatively rested and now recovered from the 1917 mutinies, was beginning to show its teeth again, thanks in part to stockpiled artillery:

"We pull up a steep track on to a plateau … And up there it’s a witch's cauldron, compared with which the business we had before was child’s play: machine-gun fire and small-arms fire so strong that it might have been thousands and thousands of enemy gun-barrels being trained on our one battery. The concentration of fire is so heavy that all we can do is lie on the ground beside the guns, with the infantry hardly 300 meters in front of us … Meanwhile, in spite of the bad weather, enemy planes have been appearing over our lines, flying at a low altitude in heavy swarms of 20 or 30 in a bunch."

On the other side, Ivor Hanson, a British gunner, described seeing French field guns lined up in huge numbers:

“Alongside and behind us are several batteries of French 75mm guns and farther behind are many French batteries of heavier guns and howitzers. I have never seen so many guns massed together. In one place they were lined up, wheel to wheel, resembling a wall of guns.”

And John Hughes, a Canadian officer, described one young soldier’s reaction to the mindboggling bloodshed:

"One lad in the car going to the CCS was very sick. He seemed to be trying to throw his insides out. We asked him where he was wounded. He said he was not wounded, only sick. 'I have killed so many men this day I am sick with the blood I have spilled. They came on in waves,' he said. 'We mowed them down. There was great pile of them in front of our machine guns. We had to fall back and get a new position. Again and again they came on. They died, oh how they died by the hundreds. Oh my God, I will never forget those dead,' and he was sick again."

Fighting raged on for several more days, however, and Lynch, the Australian private, described fighting near Dernancourt, about 10 miles east of Amiens, in his diary on April 2, 1918:

"My head is lying on the parapet now. I feel my body shake to each crushing shell. Dust and clods rain down everywhere. In front, a sea of mad, flaring shell bursts. I watch the railway embankment. A perfect rain of shells is on to it. A black length of railway line leaves the embankment and comes turning and screwing towards us, tossed by the shells. I can hear it humming through the air before it crashes 50 yards ahead. I’m watching the village. Our shells are crashing into it. It’s a mass of dust and collapsing walls. I catch the fleeting glance of forms running from a burning, tottering house … Now I am watching the railway embankment again. Two shells land together. Two black funnels of earth and smoke viciously kick upwards. Something spinning and turning in the dust cloud. A man—with neither head nor arms, flying high above the embankment. Still the barrage keeps on. Still the air is vibrant with the paralyzing roar of the crashing detonations of exploding shells."

To the south the Allies halted the German advance at Villers-Bretonneux, although the Germans came within seven miles of Amiens. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, described crossing the former Somme battlefield on their way to join the German offensive in the south:

"Within a 60-kilometer radius there was hardly a house standing—nothing but rubble and ruins. The fields were covered with overgrown shell-holes. Between them were the crosses of the fallen. If you had not seen it yourself, you would not be able to form a picture of the damage … A bridge led across the river. It had been repaired by German engineers. To the west of the bridge, I could see the first dead English soldiers. From up ahead came the continuous thunder and boom of the artillery. On all our faces you could read a dread of the future. People call us ‘heroes,’ a wonderful name which seldom—and in a manner of speaking, never—reflects reality."

Conditions for ordinary soldiers were awful on both sides, with freezing rain and flooding trenches once again the norm. Hanson recorded their circumstances in his diary on April 4:

"We arrived back to find that our tarpaulin had been commandeered by the officers and that we poor Signallers were again shelterless during a night of torrential rain. Behind the ridge we made a roof of straw which kept off some of the rain, but did not prevent us becoming soaked to the skin … My mother would go insane if I told her about things like this. Hell cannot be much worse than this, for everything contrives to break our spirits. Personally I feel tonight that I don’t care which side wins the war."

By the time Operation Michael ended on April 5, the Eighteenth Army and Second Army had penetrated over 40 miles and captured over 1000 square miles of territory. The offensive caused 240,000 Allied casualties, including 90,000 taken prisoner—but Germany, which couldn’t afford to lose any more manpower, suffered just as much, with 250,000 casualties for the offensive.

Meanwhile the Allies agreed to the appointment of the French general Ferdinand Foch as supreme commander of the Allied forces, to better coordinate the Allied response to this and future offensives, and the top American commander, General Pershing, offered as many American troops as he could muster wherever the British and French needed them—an offer that was immediately accepted.

But Germany’s strength was far from spent. With Michael canceled, Ludendorff turned his attention to the next offensive, Operation Georgette—an attempt to smash the rest of the British Expeditionary Force in front of Ypres, already the scene of three horrific battles. The next blow would fall on April 9, 1918.

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

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