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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Battle of New Orleans

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Battle of New Orleans was epic. Andrew Jackson's victory over 8000 British troops turned him into a folk hero, and paved his way to the White House. The campaign also helped modernize naval warfare and spelled doom for America’s oldest political party. Here's everything you need to know about the last major engagement in the War of 1812.

1. IT WAS FOUGHT AFTER THE AMERICANS AND THE BRITISH SIGNED A PEACE TREATY.

New Orleans was a major port and transportation hub that promised effective control of the lower Mississippi, which made it a prime target for Great Britain. So in late November 1814, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and a fleet of 50 ships set sail for Louisiana with the goal of capturing the city, along with the rest of the lower Mississippi Delta.

The fighting in Louisiana started on December 14, when a British naval squadron defeated an inferior American force in Lake Borgne. Nine days later, an encampment of around 1800 redcoats was ambushed by Jackson’s men at Villeré Plantation. Though the Americans soon pulled out, the skirmish bought Jackson, a.k.a. Old Hickory, some time to reinforce his defenses around New Orleans proper.

At the same time, an agreement to end the whole war was being negotiated. Representatives from both countries met in modern-day Belgium to hammer out the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814, 15 days before the Battle of New Orleans broke out on January 8, 1815. The treaty didn’t go into effect until it was ratified on February 16, 1815, though, so the U.S. and Great Britain were still technically at war during the battle.

2. JACKSON SHOWED UP WITH A BAD CASE OF DYSENTERY.

The Battle Of New Orleans
iStock

On November 7, 1814, with 3000 men, Jackson (then a Major General) took the city of Pensacola in Spanish Florida, where he learned about Britain’s planned invasion of New Orleans. He left for Louisiana in mid-November and—after stopping to build up Mobile, Alabama’s defenses—arrived in NOLA at the beginning of December with his personal staff.

Jackson also brought some dysentery. When he first reached New Orleans, he could barely stand. Digestion problems forced him to subsist on boiled rice for much of the campaign, and before the redcoats attacked, many of Jackson’s orders were given while the general languished miserably on a couch. Still, he wasted no time in organizing a survey of the many swamps, bays, roads, creeks, and rivers in southern Louisiana.

3. NOTORIOUS PIRATE JEAN LAFFITE DOUBLE-CROSSED THE BRITISH SO HE COULD HELP THE AMERICANS.

Jean Laffite claimed he was born in France in 1780 or so, but historians aren’t entirely sure if that's true. What they do know is that at some point in the early 19th century, he moved to Louisiana with a man named Pierre, who claimed to be his brother. The pair were smugglers, pirates, and privateers, and by the time the War of 1812 rolled around, they had established themselves in the New Orleans black market. Their base of operations was the remote Barataria Bay in southern Louisiana, where Jean made a port for his ships and set up dwellings for the ragtag collection of ne'er-do-wells involved with his criminal operation.

On September 3, 1814, a contingent of British officers arrived in Barataria Bay with an offer for Jean Laffite. The proposal went like this: If Laffite agreed to help the redcoats take control of New Orleans, he would be rewarded with a good, high-ranking job in the British navy—and he’d get to keep at least some of his ill-gotten gains. Plus, he would supposedly receive some free land along with a large sum of money.

Laffite accepted the deal—then double-crossed the British as soon as he could. No one knows why the pirate decided to help the Americans, but he might have been thinking of Pierre, who was imprisoned in New Orleans at the time. By assisting the U.S., Laffite probably figured he could get Pierre released (as it turned out, that wasn't necessary; Pierre escaped). He may have also believed that his business empire would crumble if the British took over Louisiana.

In any case, Laffite had a hard time getting the American authorities to accept his help. When he explained the situation in a letter to Louisiana’s governor, the U.S. Navy responded by laying siege to Barataria Bay. Jackson initially balked at the idea of working with Laffite, calling the smuggler’s men “hellish banditti.”

But Old Hickory eventually came around and agreed to join forces. Laffite couldn’t supply many troops; his men only represented about 2 percent of all the soldiers at Jackson’s disposal. He did, however, donate weapons to the cause, and advised the general on how to navigate the tricky rivers and bayous of Louisiana—expertise that helped turn the tide against Great Britain.

After the war, the Laffites and their men received full pardons for past crimes from the U.S. government. Jean and Pierre eventually left New Orleans, relocating to Galveston Island off the coast of present-day Texas.

4. THE FAMOUS KENTUCKY MILITIAMEN DIDN’T BRING ENOUGH GUNS—OR CLOTHES.

At his rallies during the presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s supporters would sing a little ditty called “The Hunters of Kentucky.” Written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821, the song pays tribute to the roughly 2500 Kentucky militiamen who fought under Old Hickory at the Battle of New Orleans. It turned into one of the most popular anthems of the 1820s and encouraged future politicians to choose campaign songs of their own.

But Woodworth’s lyrics don’t paint the whole picture. According to one verse, “Jackson he was wide awake, and was not scar’d at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take, with our Kentucky rifles.” But before taking aim, you need a gun—and most of those 2500-odd Kentuckians were unarmed when they reached New Orleans in early January 1815.

The militiamen had been led to believe that munitions would be handed out in New Orleans, so only around one-third of them came down with their own guns. But in New Orleans, there weren't enough arms to go around. “I don’t believe it,” Jackson supposedly said. “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”

Decent clothing was also in short supply among his visitors from the Bluegrass State, so the Louisiana citizenry and state legislature spent $16,000 to make new clothes and bedding for them.

5. STEAMBOAT WARFARE CAN TRACE ITS ROOTS TO THIS CAMPAIGN.

Jackson, who needed all the weapons he could get, must have been relieved to hear that Secretary of War James Monroe was sending over a veritable stockpile. One of the men who ferried the crucial firearms down the Mississippi was Henry Miller Shreve, captain of a large, flat-bottomed steamboat called the Enterprise. On January 3, 1815, Jackson asked Shreve to deliver some supplies to Americans holed up at Fort St. Philip, 80 miles downriver from New Orleans. Though the Enterprise had to bypass armed British forces en route, she completed the mission—a feat recognized as the first usage of a steam vessel in a military campaign. As for Shreve, he saw action at the Battle of New Orleans itself, where he commanded a 24-pound gun.

6. OLD HICKORY PLACED NEW ORLEANS UNDER MARTIAL LAW.

During the conflict, Jackson took actions that no American general had ever taken before. The decisions would ultimately come back to haunt him.

On December 16, 1814, General Jackson subjected all of New Orleans to martial law and suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, a legal principle that acts as a safeguard against unlawful imprisonment. He kept a tight hold on the reins: Ship captains needed military-issued passports to take their vessels out of the city and all citizens had to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew or be threatened with immediate arrest.

It didn’t take long for Jackson’s men to start incarcerating locals: Mayor Nicolas Girod warned on Christmas Day that the Guard House would soon be overstuffed with prisoners. It was hoped that all was going to return to normal if and when the redcoats were driven out of Louisiana. Things didn’t work out that way. Fearing a second British attack against New Orleans, Jackson decided to keep it under martial law until March 13, when the state learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified.

These were tough times for the Big Easy. During his tenure, Jackson censored local newspapers and banished French-American citizens suspected of disloyalty. Louisianans were further outraged when he had State Senator Louis Louaillier and U.S. District Court Judge Dominick Hall arrested. Once the latter was eventually set free, he put Jackson on trial and fined him $1000 for contempt of court. The general paid up, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Old Hickory’s actions came back to bite him decades later, when anti-Jacksonians used his conduct in New Orleans to paint the man as a tyrant.

7. A 1500-YARD RAMPART WAS KEY TO THE AMERICAN VICTORY.

Map of Battle of New Orleans
Stefan Kühn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

General Edward Pakenham came to the January 8 battle with around 8000 professionally trained British soldiers. By comparison, Jackson was at a distinct disadvantage: Many of his men—a hodgepodge coalition of forces from the Army/Navy/Marine Corps, militiamen, pirates, Choctaw recruits, and other fighters totalling 5700 people—had little experience fighting together. To give his troops an advantage, Old Hickory did some terraforming.

In late December, he visited the Rodriguez Canal, a shallow drainage ditch on the eastern bank of the Mississippi six miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that Pakenham would march his men up the river across some wide-open terrain, Jackson had his men build a 1500-yard rampart—made of wood, earth, and possibly cotton bales—in front of the canal. Dubbed Line Jackson, the wall began on the river bank and jetted deep into a nearby cypress swamp. For insurance, Old Hickory had the Rodriguez Canal widened so it could be used as a moat; the extra dirt that they dug up went into building the rampart.

The Battle of New Orleans began at 5 a.m. on January 8, 1815. Though there was an American contingent stationed across the river, most of the men were lying in wait for the British behind Line Jackson. The geography forced column after column of red-coated soldiers to pass through a narrow stretch of exposed countryside as they pushed towards the rampart. From the safety of their muddy wall, Jackson’s men mowed down over 2000 British troops in about two hours. It was a slaughter.

8. MISPLACED LADDERS HURT THE BRITISH.

Pakenham had a plan for dealing with Line Jackson, but one of his subordinates botched it. Before the battle, Pakenham had gathered some ladders, sugar cane bales, and other valuable supplies and entrusted them to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins. With the ladders, Pakenham’s men could have climbed over Line Jackson while using sugar bales to fill the moat. But Mullins quickly lost track of the goods—and didn’t realize his mistake until his regiment was within 1000 yards of the American line.

At that point it was too late. Unable to cross the barricade or ford the moat, the British on the eastern bank turned into sitting ducks. Pakenham was killed and so was Major General Gibbs, who supposedly said, “If I live until tomorrow, I will hang Colonel Mullins from one of these trees.” Despite gaining lots of ground on the western bank, the surviving British officers chose to withdraw from both sides of the river.

By one estimate Jackson lost just 13 men (with an additional 49 missing, captured, or wounded), despite inflicting thousands of casualties. His job wasn’t over yet: Britain didn’t pull out of Louisiana until the end of January. Nevertheless, he’d scored an impressive, morale-boosting victory along the Rodriguez Canal. America would never forget it. “History records no example of so glorious a victory obtained with so little bloodshed on the part of the victorious,” wrote Secretary of War James Monroe.

9. NO, THE SCOTTISH TROOPS DIDN’T WEAR KILTS INTO BATTLE.

Great battles inspire great artwork, but artists don’t always pay heed to historical accuracy. Some of the paintings that were made to celebrate Jackson’s rout show the Scottish troops in Britain’s 93rd Highland Regiment wearing kilts in combat. The Scotsmen at best donned tartan trousers, although some historians doubt even that, saying they likely wore gray campaign overalls.

10. IT HELPED KILL THE FEDERALIST PARTY.

Established by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party is recognized as the first political party in U.S. history. It enjoyed national dominance under the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams—but the Federalists lost that control in 1800 with the election of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's tenure bred discontent across New England, a Federalist stronghold, and members of the party who lived there began to discuss seceding from the Union as early as 1804.

The War of 1812 intensified their resolve; New England Federalists were extremely suspicious of Democratic-Republican President Madison’s efforts, with prominent Federalist Rufus King proclaiming it “a war of party, and not of the Country.” To discuss their grievances against President Madison, his Jeffersonian agenda, and the war, Federalist representatives from all over New England quietly convened in Hartford, Connecticut on December 15, 1814. They put together a list of constitutional amendments for the U.S. federal government to consider that were designed to benefit northeastern states.

It was rumored that New England would secede if the Federalists’ suggestions were ignored. The Hartford Convention wrapped up on January 5, 1815, and its proposals were soon read aloud in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. At the same time, the country was just starting to celebrate Andrew Jackson’s big win in New Orleans. Most Americans were in a jubilant mood, and the griping Federalists now looked more out of touch than ever. “Hartford Convention Federalist” became a euphemism for “disloyal traitor,” and the party declined into oblivion.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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