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Child Soldier Chapter #3



1918 CHILD SOLDIER FROM HILLIER

(This is the 3rd in a series providing background for the theatre performance of 1918 Child Soldier from Hillier by Suzanne Pasternak, that will be staged at the Teeswater Town Hall on Saturday March 28, 2009. The fundraiser for the Town Hall will have 2 pm matinee and 8 pm evening performances).

Chapter 3 -The Halifax Explosion
(See Photo gallery For Images)

By John Thompson

Background

Robert Clarence Thompson's secret was out. Following the bloody battle of Vimy Ridge in France in April 1917, his true age of 15 was discovered and in October 1917, he was discharged and sent back home to Hillier, Ontario -south of Belleville in Prince Edward County.

Wander-lust in the youth gnawed at him. For the third time in his teen-age years, he fled, this time in November 1917 to the bright lights of Toronto. With yet again another “altered” attestation paper, he re-enlisted (his third “under-aged” attempt), and was accepted once again into the Canadian Armed Forces, this time with the 1st Depot Battalion.

Life in Halifax -a City of Promise

The war to end all wars was supposed to last only a few months. It was now being referred to as The Great War and into its fourth year.

In Eastern Canada, Halifax, founded by the British military, had thrived in times of war. The port city was pulled into the World War and three years of war in Europe had made Halifax a boom town. With a population of about 50,000, it was the largest in Atlantic Canada. Halifax was a part of the war as a major supply line to the European trenches, including personnel, horses and munitions.

 

Halifax Harbour -a busy haven

Halifax's harbour is one of the world's best, deepest and largest natural havens. This established anchorage, which was ice-free, was defended by a series of forts, and Halifax was a garrison town, as well as a naval dockyard.

In early 1917 the admiralty officially introduced the convoy system to help reduce the losses from German u-boats (submarines). The inner harbour, known as the Bedford Basin, was ideal to assemble the convoys. Ships were numerous and harbour traffic control had failed to keep up. The Dartmouth ferries, civilian and military shipping, and small fishing and pleasure craft all jostled about the harbour.

Destiny For Doom

An awkward trio of groups - civilians, the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy held various responsibilities for harbour management.

There were bound to be holes in the net.

The "rules of the road" are much the same on water as on land - keep to the right, or starboard, in traffic, signal your intentions and respect those of others.

In December 1917, the Bedford Basin was full of merchant ships, one of which was a Norwegian ship the SS IMO that had “BelgiumRelief” written on her sides to emphasize her “neutrality” to u-boats. The IMO was on her way to New York to load relief supplies for Belgium, but was behind schedule having to wait for coal. Accordingly, and being empty, she may have been travelling at a faster speed than normal, when she left the Bedford Basin.

Meanwhile, the French munitions ship SS MONT BLANC came from New York where she was loaded with a cocktail of explosives and volatile material. The ship's holds, lined with wood using non- sparking copper nails, had a volatile cargo. The Mont Blanc entered Halifax with 2,300 tons of wet, dry and highly explosive picric acid; (used for making lyddite for artillery shells) in the forward hold; 200 tons of trinitrotoluene, (TNT) in the aft; and 10 tons of gun cotton in te centre. Her top decks were were stacked with drums of volatile benzol (high octane fuel).

As the Mount Blanc eased into the harbour, the IMO was coming out -empty except for ballast.

Closing in on one another, the two ships sounded a series of whistle blasts to signal their intentions. Somehow, the signals were not understood, and the approaching vessels suddenly were on a collision course.

Tragedy

Moments later, in the harbour's bottleneck area known as “the Narrows”, the IMO sliced into the Mount Blanc's side. Barrels of benzol broke loose, spilling on the deck. Instantly a tremendous fire-storm broke out. With such a volatile cargo, the Captain ordered all hands to abandon ship. The Mont Blanc on fire, drifted slowly towards Halifax, eventually ramming into Pier 6, and ignited the wooden pilings.

At 9:05m seventeen minutes after the collision, the Mont Blanc blew up. Halifax was wracked by an explosion of such magnitude that it was heard 60 miles away.

The entire Mont Blanc ship simply disintegrated and disappeared. The IMO was hurled to the far side of the harbour.

The pressure blast flattened everything in the adjacent two square kilometers, devastating an area of 325 acres. Most of the windows in Halifax were blown out.

The intense heat of 5,000 degrees Celsius at the explosion's core, was so intense that water surrounding the Mount Blanc immediately vapourized -exposing the sea bed 60 feet below - resulting in an on-rush of water to fill the void. This triggered enormous water activity and hundreds of dock workers drowned when the resulting steaming tidal wave (mini tsunami) reached shore. The wave, boiling with hot metal fragments, flooded the streets more than six netres (20 ft.) above the sea.

This was the most massive explosion of the Great War, and the largest man-made detonation until the bomb at Hiroshima in 1945.

A mushroom-shaped cloud rose several kilometres high, and 3,000 tons of the splattered ship rained down on the area.

The ship's gun landed near Alboro Lake (2 km away), and the stock of one of her anchors landed in woods 5 km away. The Narrows were boiling with the splashes of shrapnel. Also falling were rocks, believed to have been sucked up from the harbour bed.

After the blast, the rain of shrapnel, and the destructive wave, came the fires. The blast had turned houses into kindle wood, and also overturned coal and wooden stoves, which were in widespread use due to the winter temperature.

By nightfall another factor was to contribute to the final death toll -the worst blizzard for years.

For one terrible day -December 16, 1917 - Halifax, Nova Scotia, experienced the death and destruction of the worldwide conflict from The Great War.

The Dead

They were everywhere.

The total casualties were 1,963 people dead, 9,000 injured and 25,000 homeless. Not all died from the blast itself. Many died as buildings collapsed and burned around them. Shattered windows flew like showers of knives at those who had been watching the fire, many from inside their hillside homes. Some people, trapped by rubble, died of exposure in the blizzard that began on the night of December 6 and continued through the next day.

A doctor coming into the devastated area saw "bodies stacked like cordwood" along the road. Many were so horribly mutilated as to be unidentifiable.

Searching for bodies continued for more than a month, and remains were still being found in the late spring.

 

Thompson Dispatched to Halifax

Only days after Thompson's third enlistment in Toronto, and a week shy of his 16th birthday, his 1st Depot Battalion was rushed by train to Halifax to assist in the relief effort for the thousands of injured citizens and the tremendous clean-up effort resulting from this monstrous disaster.

Following the placement in Halifax, on returning to Toronto, the 16-year-old was promoted to the rank of Sergeant Major.

Still More War

Robert Clarence was transferred to the Canadian Mounted Rifles, returned to France and took part in the final engagements. Canadian Corps pursued the German army to Mons, Belgium. The German army was on the verge of collapse - Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated his throne and fled to neutral Netherlands on November 10th. The new German government desperately wanted peace and requested an armistice. Late that same day, companies of the Royal Canadian Regiment and the 42nd Highlanders moved into Mons.

The Armistice was signed the next day on November 11, 1918 -the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Post War

Robert Clarence Thompson came back to Prince Edward County as a 16-year-old to work for his father and begin a more normal way of life following the war to end all wars.

Robert's father Robert Wesley Thompson ran the Cloverdale Cheese Factory in Wellington, Ontario for many years and eventually the family moved to Teeswater and joined the family egg and creamery business (now Gay Lea Foods).

Note From the Town Crier Publisher

Robert “Bob” Thompson had connections with the Village of Mildmay through his years as manager of the Mildmay Creamery (a branch of the Teeswater Thompson Brothers Creamery). .

He also married a Mildmay girl, the former Celeste Helwig in 1937. Of course many residents will remember Celeste when she was employed by Sandy Fedy at the Fedy Grocery Store and as the organist at St. Paul's Evangelical United Brethern Church (which later became St. Paul's United Church) for many years.

“Bob” was also one of the twenty-three Mildmay businessmen who were Charter Members of the Mildmay Rotary Club back in 1943.

Bob passed away in 1950.

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