The RMS Titanic sank a hundred and one years ago today. Ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.
The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher. Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Altogether they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.
Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies.
An even more horrible tragedy still lay five years down the road. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima, either.
Halifax, Nova Scotia
Halifax is a good-looking, purposeful, working town. With a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of lobster and Christmas trees.It doesn’t look at all like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth, across the water, enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.
With one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax always prospered in wartime, from the Napoleanic wars and the War of 1812, and continuing to the onset of World War One, providing men and materiel for various war efforts.
Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony, when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic ultimately rose to seventeen million tons a year, from just two.
By 1917, businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas.
Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Ultimately, women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.
The U.S. held to a position of neutrality. But after a German declaration of U-boat warfare against Atlantic supply lanes and the sinking of both merchant and passenger ships with Americans onboard, the U.S joined the Great War in April 1917.
The first regular, systematic convoy of war material from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on June 24th, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.
The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax describes a typical convoy as five ships abreast with two corvettes out front and one on each flank.
Typically, freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, and maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives sailed alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.
Convoy traffic moved to Halifax from Sydney during winter, owing to the back bay, the ice-free Bedford Basin. The basin, with a surface area of just six and a half square miles, was jammed with ships.
By winter 1917 a jittery uncertainty had prevailed across the twin cities for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night to prevent German U-boats from sneaking in.