“He had the impression of being in a strange country …”
Some of you will remember my recent series of posts about Hugh Russell, a WW1 soldier with shell shock, or what we now call PTSD. In my ongoing attempts to learn more about that affliction and the struggles veterans had reintegrating after the war, I’ve since been researching a man named John Armitage, who’d had a nervous breakdown of sorts after the first use of poison gas at Ypres. By 1916 he’d returned to Canada and was stationed at Aldershot Camp in Nova Scotia. The following year he married a woman named Emma at St. George’s Round Church in Halifax, the ceremony officiated by the minister Henry Ward Cunningham. Despite the union, John’s troubles continued. His pension record references “occasional emotional disturbances” in June of that year, and states that he “cries for hours about once in six weeks, following exceptionally hard work.” His complaints were like those of so many other men: nightmares, nervousness, insomnia. But though his story is a fascinating and tragic one, this post is not about him, and is a fine example of the twists and turns we encounter when we piece together the histories of ordinary people.
Although John was stationed at Aldershot during this period, and also in a sanatorium nearby for a time, his service record places Emma at a Halifax address. Judging by the dates scrawled on a form, it appears the couple was still in Nova Scotia in December 1917, when two ships collided in the Narrows, just north of Halifax Harbour. One of the ships had been loaded with munitions, and the collision caused a fire on board that soon saw the vessel engulfed in flames. Within 20 minutes, the ship exploded, spewing debris and toxic fumes over a wide area on both sides of the Narrows. The blast was so enormous that blocks of buildings were decimated, and windows shattered as much as 80 kilometres away. A tsunami washed the second ship ashore, and devastated a Mi’kmaw village situated along the Dartmouth waterfront, home to some 17 families. Rachel Cope, a child watching the scene from there, later recalled how the opposite shore had “seemed to shimmer like a reflection in a still pond and then everything went black.”
Nearly 2,000 people died, and 9,000 were wounded. For soldiers, it must have looked as though war had swept through the region as vehemently as at Passchendaele or the Somme, snapping trees and lamp posts and obliterating people’s homes. Almost immediately, soldiers were put to work gathering the dead and sorting through rubble for survivors. If John Armitage was among this band, it must have been gruelling work indeed, the kind that traumatized mentally healthy people let alone those who were already struggling. But everyone everywhere was helping — firefighters, police, railway workers, doctors, nurses, and ordinary civilians lucky enough to survive the blast. Afterwards, according to personal accounts collected for the Halifax Disaster Record Office, one officer recalled seeing “a trail of blood” as refugees streamed away from the hardest hit areas. As he directed soldiers in the work of removing bodies, he noticed in the distance “patches of white scattered all over” on Citadel Hill. The image puzzled him until someone explained that these were cloths laid over the faces of the dead.
Stories have a wonderful way of weaving into each other during this kind of research. So while looking for John Armitage, instead I discovered more and more about Reverend Cunningham, the man who’d married John and Emma at the Round Church months earlier. Born in Newfoundland, he was about 55 at the time of the Halifax Explosion, married, with several grown children and a son at war. Like the officer mentioned above, he shared his recollections of the terrifying event with the Halifax Disaster Record Office.
That morning, December 6, 1917, he had just finished his breakfast, and his wife was handing him a cup of coffee when a deep boom thundered, as if a bomb had burst on the church lawn. All at once, a “mighty rush of air” smashed the windows and blew in glass with the curtains, and he was thrown under the table, bleeding from a cut in his neck. He looked for his wife, who had run to the basement, and from outside he heard children at the local school screaming. For a couple of hours, until it was certain no further explosions would occur, he and his neighbours were crowded into the Halifax Common not far from the church, but as soon as he could, he went to check on parishioners. The devastation was everywhere. He saw homes reduced to nothing more than “a pile of bricks and a bath-tub,” bodies covered with burlap bags, fires blazing. One woman told him that when the vessels had first collided, she’d called to her children to “come out and see the beautiful sight of the burning ship,” and then was thrown 300 feet when the blast occurred, her clothing torn from her body.
I was curious to know more about this man who’d donned “old over-alls and old cap” and gone out looking for his parishioners that awful day. “There were fires along both sides of him on Union Street,” his interviewer wrote. “He had to pick his way over wires and debris. As he looked over the hill-side, he had the impression of being in a strange country – that he had never been there before. It was ‘terribly unfamiliar.’” To add to the monumental difficulties dealing with the explosion’s aftermath, a blizzard blew in the following day, stranding rescue teams coming from other places and cloaking the ruins in snow.
Reverend Cunningham’s work continued in the days and weeks after the explosion. “His house was deluged with hundreds of people,” and became a headquarters for food and clothing. The rectory had been built in 1841 and “stood the shock well,” and though the church had been damaged, it would recover. Soon after the blast, men of the parish set to putting things right again. He felt frustrated, though, by the relief committee’s efforts, and believed the distribution of goods should have been “more equitable.”
For the minister himself, faith — and perhaps experience — must have played a role in his own personal recovery, for he had seen disaster before. In April 1912, when the Titanic had sunk on its first voyage across the Atlantic, Cunningham had traveled out to the scene with an undertaker and an embalmer on board the Minia. More than 300 bodies had already been pulled from the sea by the first ship called on, and the Minia was brought in to assist in the grim, overwhelming mission.
As with the Halifax Explosion, bad weather interfered. At one point, the ship’s captain, William de Carteret, reported:
Returned to position last night during east gale and fog, and searched all day; found no bodies; omitted giving you following:
Joseph Finney, second class, rubber merchant, Brown Building, Liverpool.
Thomas Mullin, Badge 32, steward.
Have searched from latitude 49.25 eastward to 48 and north from 41.20 to 41.50. No doubt some single bodies remain; no groups. As they cannot be seen more than half a mile, you will understand how difficult it is to search every square mile for them. Regret must leave Friday night, but will make another search tomorrow. Passed one body during dense fog; unable to find it afterward.
A more intimate letter was written by Francis Dyke, an electrician on board, who confided to his mother back in England, “I honestly hope I will never have to come on another expedition like this as it is far from pleasant. The Dr. and I are sleeping in the middle of 14 coffins (for the time being) they are all stacked around our quarters aft. … When we passed over the spot where the Titanic sank [Reverend Cunningham] held a short service in the saloon which I thought was very nice of him. I expected to see the poor creatures very disfigured but they all looked calm as if they were asleep.”
In picturing the crew out searching, I’m reminded that this story connects to our own family history. Somewhere in the water, never recovered, were the bodies of Reverend Ernest Courtenay Carter and his wife Lilian, who ran the church our grandmother’s family attended in Whitechapel. Two years earlier, our grandmother Doris Lilian had been named after Mrs. Carter, and baptized in the church.
After a week on board, the Minia’s crew had recovered only 17 bodies. They returned to Halifax Harbour, giving over the empty coffins to yet another rescue ship. The individual notes taken for each person found — clues to their identities — make for heartbreaking reading: Large prominent nose, silver cufflinks marked “E. K.” … Light brown hair, light eyebrows. … Short fingernails. (Looks as if he has been in the habit of biting them.) Letters, coins, buttons, handkerchiefs, keys, cigar cases, pocket watches — all were inspected and catalogued in the hope of identifying the dead.
Henry Ward Cunningham lived out the rest of his life in Halifax. One wonders what he thought when he recalled these two events, such enormous moments in history. A third event — more obscure but somehow a match for the others — occurred decades earlier, when he was just 18 and studying in England. The Frome Times reported:
Monday morning in last week, as a number of the S. Boniface College students were skating on Sheerwater, a sudden cry of alarm from one of their number, announced the startling fact that a portion of the ice had given way, and that a student named Mr. Laughlin had fallen into the water and disappeared beneath the ice. One of his fellow students, Mr. Cunningham, being an expert skater, soon arrived at the spot, and after trying in vain to reach him from the top of the ice, immediately dived into the water, but being unable to see him the first time, he was obliged to swim to the shore through the ice, which happened just there to be very thin, and then for the second time, without giving himself time to divest himself of any garment, he again pluckily went the rescue, plunging into the water and under the ice after his drowning fellow student. We are glad to be able to say that after some difficulty and severe bodily exertion on his part, he brought the fast drowning student to shore, who by this time had lost consciousness. The usual restoratives were applied by Mr. Wilcox, and we are glad to be able to say that neither the rescuer nor the rescued are now any the worse. We have no hesitation in saying that had it not been for the great bravery displayed by Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Laughlin would most certainly have been drowned.
Soon after, Cunningham was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s silver medallion, and that old memory may have come to mind years later when he was presented with a deck chair recovered from the Titanic. A haunting gift, I would think, for who had sat in that chair and what had become of them? Twenty-five of Cunningham’s parishioners died in the Halifax Explosion, but he remained at the church for many years. He and his wife both died in 1943, and were buried in St. John’s Cemetery, where many of the explosion victims were also interred.
Sources and further reading:
British Newspaper Archive: “Sheerwater,” Frome Times, 11 February, 1880