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by John G. Armstrong
Vancouver, BC: UBC Press, 320 pages, $39.95
Reviewed by Captain Hugh Culliton

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Every sailor in the Canadian Navy who has passed Chebucto Head knows the story of the Halifax explosion, and every ship that has navigated the Narrows into Bedford Basin has obeyed the rules of passage enacted after this horrendous event. While the Halifax explosion of December 1917 was soon buried by events of the Great War and the next year’s influenza pandemic, its effect on Canadian history still resonates. Indeed, given events since 11 September 2001, perhaps we can once again identify with this great disaster and the effect it had on the witnesses of the day.

Yet, other than a few terse lines in history texts, sandwiched between the struggle of Vimy Ridge and the Hundred Days campaign, what do we really know of this event? Thanks to the research of John Armstrong much of the drama of this moment has been captured. To whet the reader’s appetite, a brief historical sketch is needed.

In 1917 the Great War had settled down to a grinding titanic struggle. Canada, after three years of bloodshed, was a senior and respected ally to Great Britain. The Canadian Corps was reaching the pinnacle of professionalism and the nation had completely mobilized industry thanks to the earlier efforts of Sir Sam Hughes. This massive effort, accompanied by the relatively new threat of U-Boat raiders, meant that convoys from Canada to Great Britain were essential to sustaining the war. Halifax had always been a strategically significant port, but for the first time, Canadians controlled it during war. The Militia garrisoned the Citadel, and the RCN swept the approaches, guarded the anti-submarine gates, and controlled movement of all allied shipping.

The RCN has been long referred to as the Cinderella service. This is an appropriate handle for a Navy still-born in a Dominion which still revered the notion of Empire and the Royal Navy. Even then Halifax had had a love-hate relationship with the RCN. In 1917 the RCN was still what Hadley and Sarty called a “tin-pot fleet”: a raw obnoxious upstart aping the glory of the greatest navy on Earth. This, plus its growing pains in asserting control over the heavy wartime shipping in the Halifax approaches, placed it in a very difficult position in the days following the Explosion. Any accident would have great ramifications for the RCN; this dramatic event was agonizing.

Still, on the morning of 6 December 1917, when the largest single pre-atomic explosion devastated the City of Halifax and flattened Dartmouth, it seemed to provide the final proof of the incompetence of the RCN. But was the Canadian Navy culpable? Its officers and crews reacted with courage. True, entire crews were technically guilty of ‘mutiny’ by jumping ship and assisting with rescuing civilians, but who in Canada could punish that? Indeed, this independent attitude was a source of pride to Army commanders in France. Still, the RCN was responsible for harbour movements.

As Armstrong illustrates, the explosion, deadly as it was, was not as interesting as the reaction, particularly the opinion about RCN responsibility. Immediate damage was limited to a three nautical mile radius, but political damage was nation-wide. Given the pressure of running a nation at war, Borden was concerned. What effect does such an event have on a national war effort, when the media crucifies an entire martial service? How can any inquiry reach an impartial conclusion when the papers constantly hound it? Long before O.J. Simpson, the Halifax media showed how ‘applied’ journalism could lead to a preordained conclusion.

Armstrong has done excellent work in examining this monumental moment in Canadian history. The layout offers any student of history an easy entry into the topic. Pertinent maps are provided and photographs illustrate the personal element so often lost in the telling of great events. The telling of the aftermath has the ring of a courtroom drama. Armstrong offers us several heroes and villains with whom the reader can identify or revile.

In short, anyone interested in the history of the Canadian Navy or Halifax should read this book. It is entertaining, professional, and informative. Indeed, given the times in which we live, it is very timely.

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Captain Hugh Culliton is serving with the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment in Peterborough, Ontario.