Victoria Author Tells Story of Halifax Explosion Through Journalists' Accounts
By Robert Hawkes
When I first visited Victoria I was struck by the many similarities between Victoria and Halifax, NS. Both are beautiful harbourside cities, rich in history and elegant architecture, and popular with tourists. They are provincial capitals with nearby naval bases. In both cities you can stroll the well preserved harbourside walkways and imagine earlier times.
One hundred years ago Halifax, NS suffered the world's largest explosion prior to the advent of nuclear weapons. On the morning of December 6, 1917 the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc collided in Halifax harbour with Imo, a ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium. About twenty minutes after the collision, the fire on Mont-Blanc resulted in a devastating munitions explosion. In an instant about two thousand people were killed, with about five times that number seriously injured. Houses and businesses in the Halifax neighbourhood of Richmond, similar in area and harbour proximity to James Bay, were obliterated.
Earlier this year retired Victoria history teacher Michael Dupuis published the book Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. The book tells the story of the Halifax Explosion through the eyes of the journalists who covered the story. Michael Dupuis has written a number of other books and articles. It was while researching the Titanic disaster that he came across the accounts of two of the journalists who also covered the Halifax explosion. In researching Bearing Witness he spent long hours pouring through microfilms of both newspapers and the original journalist dispatches. In 1917 not all journalists were allowed to use bylines, and it took considerable effort to identify some of the journalists and unearth their biographical information.
The story of the Halifax Explosion as told through Bearing Witness is at the same time heartbreaking and inspirational. Many who had served on the war front described the injuries here as far worse than even the most horrendous encountered during the war. "The physical suffering, the mental anguish from wounds, blinding, crippling, bereavement cannot be reckoned by human calculation," wrote Archibald MacMechan.
Of the 400 students who had arrived at the Richmond schoolhouse, it is believed that only a single one survived. You can feel the tears through the words of journalist A.J. Philpott: "These little men and women of the future, engaged in their innocent childish play and prattle, hurled into eternity in a fraction of time is something that touches the innermost cords of the most hardened heart. Surely if Halifax had to be sacrificed its children might have been spared."
The response to the disaster was filled with stories of heroism and sacrifice. After hearing only brief initial accounts of the disaster, medical personnel from Boston boarded a train and headed for Halifax. All along the route through New England, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, other doctors and nurses joined the train. The train raced from Boston to Halifax, a route that normally took 27 hours, in only 22 hours. To this day the province of Nova Scotia every Christmas sends a huge tree to Boston as ongoing thanks for the assistance provided in 1917.
The first journalist from outside Halifax to reach the city was Alfred Coffin of the Truro Daily News, who represented the Canadian Press. His first posting told the story of telegraph operator Vince Coleman who stayed at his post at the Richmond Station to warn an approaching train of the danger. Vince Coleman died as a result, his sacrifice recognized in a Historica Canada Heritage Minute. This year a Halifax harbour ferry is being named Vince Coleman on the anniversary of the explosion.
Bearing Witness has earned considerable praise from reviewers, academics and general readers. Ryerson University Journalism Professor Gene writes "[this book] provides a fascinating and richly detailed case study of how in the face of great danger and many obstacles, journalists covered one of the biggest stories in Canadian history."
Victoria author Michael Dupuis stands near the site of the 1917 Halifax explosion. Photo courtesy of Fernwood Press
Although marine disasters can occur anywhere with little advance notice, for us in this region an earthquake is more likely to be the cause of great destruction. No one knows if that will be in our lifetimes, or many generations in the future. Amid all the destruction, I took comfort in the way people from all over the Maritimes and New England and beyond poured into Halifax to provide assistance. As Christopher Daly from Boston wrote in his review of the book: "We are lucky to have this book to remind us of the suffering, heroism, and international cooperation that marked the response to the great catastrophe."
Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion is published by Fernwood Press (ISBN 978-1552668757). As well as the original journalists' accounts and biographical information, the book includes historical maps and photographs. The book is available in local bookstores as well as copies at the Greater Victoria Public Library. The Central Branch of the Greater Victoria Public Library is hosting a presentation on Bearing Witness by the author, Michael Dupuis. It will be held Dec. 2, 2017 at 2:30 pm. You can reserve a place through the library website.