Halifax Explosion: The Explosion

The right photo is titled The Aftermath of the Halifax Explosion, N.S. 1917 and 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 one of his experience.

My Experience in the Halifax Disaster

In consequence of the military missions of the British and Canadian governments set up in all the principal cities throughout the country soon after the United States declared war on Germany, I volunteered, in the city of Philadelphia, about the middle of November, 1917, for service in the Irish Guards of the British Army, and, was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, to await transportation overseas.

I arrived in Halifax about twelve o’clock (midnight) and, through the kindness of a Canadian soldier, whom we met on the train from Boston to Halifax, who took us to the barracks where he was stationed we were taken care of temporary at least — for the night. There was one fellow with me from Boston, and our train was way behind schedule, otherwise we would have been met at Halifax station and taken to the huts assigned to the men of the British Expeditionary Forces, which was some three-quarters of a mile distant.

The following morning we were directed to the armoury assigned to the British, and, on our way there we crossed the hill known as the Citadel; a considerable fortress, which completely dominates the entrance to the harbour and, affords a splendid view of the surrounding country.

On arrival at our destination a record of us was soon made on our army papers and we commenced to drill – left right, left right! – for the first time. The drill sergeants and “gym” instructors were considerate, so we soon commenced to “get acquainted” with our new surroundings.

There was in the neighbourhood of about two-hundred and fifty men in camp at the time of my arrival there — all of whom were from the United States, with new arrivals almost daily.

Wednesday evening, Dec 5th, I put on the uniform for the first time and jokingly bidding farewell to my “civil” clothes I little knew how near that farewell came to being my last to anything earthly.

The terrible disaster! The worst of it’s kind in the world’s history!

Thursday, December the 6th, 1917, that never-to-be-forgotten day, broke bright and clear and calm — that calmness which usually forebodes a storm of some kind. It was an unusual day for this time of year and for this climate. We were on parade in the armoury, each squad going through it’s drill according to it’s experience; while two, or possibly three, of the more advanced squads were marched out of the armoury on a “hike” immediately after parade started. Luckily they were or there would have been more casualties. At five minutes past nine o’clock to be exact, there was a tremor! and the sergeant who was drilling us — a real “livewire — a little Canadian “gym” instructor who had served two years in France, was nearly the first one to notice it in fact all of us noticed it. He “halted” us and asked us if we noticed it. We replied we did; but nobody seemed to know anything more about it so we proceeded with our drill.

We had been marching in two ranks from the east to the west side of the armoury, on which a number of very large windows were, and were as close to the wall as was possible to go when the order “about turn” was given. A very lucky order indeed, for us! We had proceeded about three of four yards away from the windows when that terrible crash — that dull, reverberating roar — fell upon our ears! It is entirely beyond my humble abilities to even attempt to describe it. It’s beyond the power of anybody, no matter what their abilities are. On recovering my senses and hearing, for I was as deaf for several minutes — exactly how long I don’t know — as any person ever was, all was silence, all was darkness. A chocking (sic), blinding, impenetrable cloud of dust filled the armoury, turning day into night. After awhile, through a hole in the roof, a little light could be seen, directly over where I was. I saw the form of my little Canadian friend (the “gym” instructor) go by at a great pace, whereto I did not know; but I afterwards learned he had made for the cellar as he knew the armoury and I did not, being only there a week then. He was “wise” to making for the dug-outs in France during a heavy bombardment. Next I noticed a little light like the flicker of a candle at what was once the door of the armoury, and I made for it at top speed, without my great coat, tunic, or cap. We all had discarded these during the physical exercises.

I could feel the blood running off my face and could see it dripping from my left hand but I did not know then if it was serious or not. On my way out I met our Major and blood was streaming from a wound on his face. Reaching the sidewalk I heard an agonizing moan behind me. It was one of our poor fellows who had reached the street and collapsed, fatally injured. With the assistance of a couple more fellows we carried him to the medical hut for treatment. I learned afterwards that the poor fellow died the same day.

Outside our fellows were around; most all of them cut and bleeding. Three or four of us ventured back into the armoury for our uniforms and it was then I realized what an escape I had. Right close to the windows were three poor fellows lying dead; just about three yards from the place where we got the order to “about turn”; and another fellow had three of his ribs broken. The windows were blown in upon them, killing them instantly. There was several holes in the slated roof.

The iron girders supporting the roof and the iron frame-work connecting it were twisted as if they were thin strands of wire. But they did not give way; if they did, there would not be one of us left to tell the tale. Debris was piled high all around. When I reached the outside I had my wounds dressed up a little. Streams of wounded people were coming from all directions towards the medical hut for treatment. There was hardly any thing left at the hut that was not blown to pieces; but they soon procured supplies from the Halifax hospital. This hospital being some distance away from the scene of the explosion was not much damaged.

To be continued…

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