Halifax Explosion: Storm and Burials

The right photo is titled Little Dutch Church, Halifax, N.S. by Arthur B. Burchell. It also comes from a tiny little shop found along the Halifax Harbour boardwalk. It’s one of many photos I recently found tucked away in a small teak wood chest in our basement.

The story below is a personal account from the Halifax Explosion. The original comes from the National Archives and I’ve done my best to transcribe it. The author is an anonymous Irish-American volunteer with the Irish Guards. He arrived in Halifax from Philadelphia in November 1917, just before the explosion. This is part three of his experience.

My Experience in the Halifax Disaster, Part 3

Sometime Thursday night, or early Friday morning a terrible blizzard commenced to rage. It lasted all day Friday and far into that night. We were all “confined to barracks” or “CB’d” as it is better know in the army. A United States destroyer was dispatched from Boston to Halifax, and a number of marines were landed to do patrol duty and prevent looting of any kind in the devastated area. Martial law being proclaimed and the storm raging so bad on Friday night, our major considered it entirely unsafe for us to venture out. It would be taking too much risk because it would be impossible for those marines doing guard duty to distinguish between friend or foe on account of the weather even if we were in uniform. As there were no Canadian soldiers available at the time for this kind of work, by kind permission of the United States government those marines were ordered there for patrol duty.

By this time one of our huts was taken over as a temporary hospital. Our beds were of the “upper and lower” kind accommodating two on top and two below, so that when this hut was taken over we had to make room for the men of that hut. This was done by putting three men in where there were just enough room for two! Those huts were in very bad shape after the explosion. The roofs and windows in some cases were very badly shattered; so on Friday morning when “reveille” sounded we had, in most cases, a nice blanket of snow covering us.

We were very much handicapped on Saturday on account of the snow. It was impossible to navigate much less recover any dead body’s from the ruins, so we had to give it up for that day. It was a terrible blizzard but I believe it did some good inasmuch as it prevented any possible chance of plague rising from the awful number of dead bodies that lay around.

Sunday morning about twenty five or thirty of us were sent to the Wellington barracks to clean up there. The barracks were near where the explosion occurred, so they were in awful shape. Those barracks are built so as to form an absolute square so the space in the centre can be used as a parade grounds. There were quite a large number of Canadian “rookies” – eight or nine hundred I believe – stationed here, but luckily for themselves, they were all on parade at the time the explosion occurred. I understood there were only six or seven killed of the men who were in barracks. There are always a certain number of men left in charge of these rooms. We proceeded to clean up a section and started on a hall-way on the first floor of this section. Having cleaned up this hall-way we proceeded to the second floor for the same purpose. Just as the last man had ascended the stairs, which was at the end of the hall-way, the whole ceiling collapsed. Thank God there was nobody underneath it.

On the second floor, in one of the rooms, was a small stove which was about the only thing that was not smashed to pieces. We made a fire in it of pieces of broken furniture and other wood that lay around. We were very wet and cold after walking from our huts to this place as it started raining on Sunday morning, turning the snow into a vast sea of slush. Some of the fellows had taken off their military boots (not rubber) to try and dry their feet at that dim little stove-fire. The roofs were of slate, and the building two stories high. I was sitting at one side of the stove while the other fellows were sitting at different places near the stove or around the room. The roof was in bad condition and the wind was, by this time, blowing a strong gale. Someone remarked that it was not a very safe place to be; we all agreed that it was not, and were about to move when a shower of slates fell on top of us. A slate dropped on my right shoulder, another knocked a fellows cap off, and there were several narrow escapes. It took far less time that it takes to tell it for us fellows to move away from that stone!

We continued on till about three – thirty when we returned to our huts. Our mess hall was in the armory, but there was so little of it left after the explosion it would be hard to find any resemblance of a dining room about it. What was left of the tables was covered with snow, so we had to form in “single file” pass the kitchen staff, while one “dished” us out a small portion of stew, another one ounce of cheese, another two slices of bread, while the last one presented us with a half-mug of black tea. By this time it was customary for the “Officer of the Day” or as he is better known in the army as “Mess Officer,” whose duty it is to enter the mess room at meal times to ask if there are “any complaints,” about the food, to ask for volunteers to divide their scanty rations with the needy, suffering victims of the disaster. There was not a man there at any meal who did not give some part of his allowance to those unfortunate people.

In passing, I may say, that when the “Officer of the Day” enters the mess hall it’s for the purpose of hearing, and acting upon any just complaints about the food. It’s every soldier’s privilege; but one must have a reasonable complaint to make or else you are liable to make a lot of trouble for yourself.

Monday was spent at the morgue. A gruesome, nauseating job; trying to identify those poor victims by arranging any little scrap of evidence that could be found on them, so as the relative and friends who continually filled the morgue would have a chance to recognize their belongings. In a great many cases it was utterly impossible to identify any of them for the condition they were in. The heart -rending scenes witnessed there will live in my memory as long as I live. It certainly can better be imagined than described. To witness these relatives and friends as they walked past the long lines of victims stretched out in rows, and eagerly awaiting those that were being constantly brought in was a sad sight. There would be a scream here, a moan or a sob there; then some one would have to be carried away from that terrible scene. The only stimulant we got was a half a table-spoonful of brandy at the end of the day. There were times when we felt pretty “blue,” but we kept on at our unpleasant task of trying to arrange the poor creatures in such a way that they could be placed in wooden boxes to await burial later. Of course any of the identified bodies were buried by relatives or friends. This kept on for several days till all the dead who could be found were either identified, or marked unidentified. The weather was very bad; rain, snow, sleet and strong winds all of the time; with intense cold.

We dug long lines of trenches in this inclement weather, to bury the dead in, and when we returned to our huts at night we would have to hang our wet clothes around two old stoves in the hut to dry and dry them out, if only a little, so we could wear them the next day.

On Christmas eve night I had the unusual experience of going to confession in Murphy’s Theatre! “The Casino” was the name of it, and people of this name, although strange to say, were not catholics kindly put the use of the theatre till eleven o’clock each Sunday at the disposal of Father Murphy in whose parish the theatre was situated. The reason the theatre was used was because the catholic church in that parish was entirely unsafe for any number of people to enter it. Other denominations used the theatre on Sunday evenings for their services as their churches, in a great many cases, were either completely wrecked, or unsafe to enter.

I well remember, an incident that took place after I had come out from confession. I was standing in the vestibule of the theatre and got in communication with a strapping fine Irish fellow who was a sailor in the British navy, We talked about the disaster that had occurred, and he told me it had been two years previous since he was to confession. What he had witnessed there brought him to a realization of his indifference to his creator, and the mercy of that creator in giving him another chance by not taking away his life as happened those fourteen hundred people who lost their lives in the explosion. The cruiser on which this sailor was assigned lay at anchor two miles away from shore, and one of his comrades, although not of his faith, rowed him to shore in the dark and awaited his return to row him back to his ship. This same comrade did the very same thing the next (Xmas) morning so the poor fellow could go to Holy Communion.

While that sailor and me were talking in the theatre vestibule, along came one of our fellows, another Irishman. He knew me, so all three of us got in conversation. It did not take long to find out what his business was. He asked me if I knew where there was a Catholic Church where he could go to confession. He had told the sailor any myself that it was a long time since he had been to the sacraments. we told him at once he was in the right place to become reconciled with God, but he seemed to hesitate and was about to leave. Sensing his temerity, we insisted on him remaining. He went into the theatre but returned without going to confession. We kept on encouraging him; so finally he went, and all three of us had the unusual experience of receiving Holy Communion on the stage of that theatre on Christmas morning.

A small altar was erected on the stage and the people who were to receive the Blessed Eucharist, in single file ascended the stage on one side, knelt in front of the altar, and descended on the other side without the least confusion.

The work at the morgue still continued for several more days till finally all the bodies that were in the ruins were removed and arranged for burial. The unidentified dead, for what portions of their remains as could be collected were all buried in long lines of trenches, with each religious denomination holding it’s services over the dead; and those ceremonies certainly were sad sights to witness. There was nothing but one funeral procession after another in that historic old city of Halifax.

The relief stations set up in different parts of the city did excellent work in providing food, clothing, and other necessities of life for the homeless and needy. The generous and quick response of the United States government in “wiring” five million dollars to the relief of the suffers, the timely and unstilted aid, both medical and otherwise, given by the State of Massachusetts, and the city of Boston in particular, minimized to a wonderful extent the sufferings of the unfortunate victims of this terrible calamity.

Our work was now completed. A large draft of Canadians were about to be called up and sent to Halifax for training. The quarters we occupied were needed for this draft, so, on the evening of the 31st of December 1917, we were shipped to a small town by the name of Windsor, about forty-five miles south -west of Halifax in the Province of Nova Scotia, there to await transportation overseas.

On arriving at Windsor we resumed our training. On the 19th of January, 1918, the whole “bunch” of that gallant band of heroes (with the exception of five or us) left Windsor via Halifax for overseas.

Through some mix-up in my papers caused by the explosion I could not be sent over. The other four fellows were still in Hospital.

I don’t believe I ever felt worse in my life as the few of us who remained lined up to bid a last farewell – and in a great many cases it was a last farewell – to that brave, gallant, heroic, kindhearted lot of men as their train steamed past the barracks we occupied.

The evening before their departure, our major lined them up on the parade ground. He was a man with forty-two years experience as a soldier, and knew the United States pretty well. It was a farewell address; but he did not get very far when his emotions overcame him, so it was with great difficulty he could proceed with the remarks he wished to make to these fine fellows. He stated that in his forty-two years of service it was now his privilege to command men of such caliber. Although all of them “green” men they were tried and tested in the worst disaster of it’s kind in the world’s history and were not found wanting. To prove his regard for them he allowed every one of us out till midnight on the eve of their departure without a pass! And every man of them proved his worth by answering role-call at “reveille” the following morning. I may say, there was but little sleep for any one that night! The following day he went to Halifax with them to bid them good-bye, when they sailed from that fort.

I did not get away from Windsor till Sunday, March the 24th, 1918. We sailed from Halifax the following day, and I had the good fortune on arriving at my destination on the other side of meeting six, or eight of my old “pals” who were with me during our trials and hardships, and after a hard day’s drill we would go over some of the experiences we had while in Canada. However, none of us wished to dwell very much on what we had seen and gone through at the time of the disaster. We tried to forget; if forget we could what we had seen and gone through there. From that day to the present-one, not as much as “thank you boys” has ever come from any direction for the services rendered humanity there on that terrible occasion.

The End.

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