«An excerpt from: In My Time: A Memoir by Thomas H. Raddall In September 1917 I entered Grade Nine, which was conducted by the headmaster himself as ...»
An excerpt from: "In My Time: A Memoir" by Thomas H. Raddall
In September 1917 I entered Grade Nine, which was conducted by the headmaster
himself as preparation for entry into the prestigious Halifax Academy next year. At the
same time I acquired a paper route. My paper was the Daily Echo, published in the
afternoon. The distributing point was a stationer’s shop on Gottingen Street, more than a
mile from the school. I hoped to buy enough money to buy a bicycle.
Each afternoon after school I walked to Gottingen Street, picked up my bag of newspapers, and trudged around the route. I had a few deliveries to make on Gottingen, then along North Street to Chebucto Road, down Chebucto almost to Armdale, and thence up Quinpool Road to my final deliveries at Bloomingdale Terrace and Rosebank Avenue. My customers were widely scattered, and they covered the social scale from the poor folk of Gottingen to the well-to-do of Bloomingdale and Rosebank.
On Saturday’s, while delivering the heavy weekend papers, I had to collect the week’s money from my customers. We were paid a percentage of the cash we collected, and a bad debtor cheated the boy as well as the Daily Echo. I learned a lot about good and bad debtors in this business. Indeed, I learned a lot about people in general. Among other things I found that on Saturday’s the poor people usually had the cash ready for me, whereas the well-to-do usually kept me standing (often in the rain or snow) while they rummaged about for change. Also, my biggest and most careless debtors lived in the plush homes Bloomingdale and Rosebank. All together the route from the school and the roundabout course back to my home was over three miles, so that in the course of each week I did a lot of trudging in all weathers for small pay. As a bonus, which I did not appreciate at the time, I got lessons in human nature far more useful than anything taught at school.
*** When winter came there was a terrible new lesson, which also began for me at Chebucto School. On December 6, 1917, a French ship named Mont Blanc, crammed with powerful explosives, blew up while passing from the harbour into Bedford Basin. The resultant terrific blast destroyed the northern parts of Halifax and Dartmouth and smashed doors windows, and much interior plaster in the rest. About two thousand people were killed at once or died later of their injuries. The exact number was never known. About Nine thousand others were injured but survived, many of them hideously mutilated. A lot of them were blinded by slivers of windowpane driven with the force of rifle bullets.
Chebucto School was a brick structure of two storeys, with room for about seven hundred pupils, built in 1910 to cope with the expected growth of the city towards the west. The swarm of people into Halifax for war work soon crowded all the schools, and at Chebucto even the great auditorium was filled with makeshift desks, chairs andscreens to provide extra classes for junior grades.
In this fourth winter of the war there was a heating problem. The fuel was coal from Nova Scotia mines, in short supply, and the school board ordered the janitors to bank their fires at night. At Chebucto School this brought a special problem in the morning, for the rooms remained chilly until about ten o’clock. Hence another decree. Start the day at the customary nine o’clock in the morning. The rest would arrive one hour later, when the rooms were more comfortable. By chance this decree prevented a dreadful loss of life and limb (and eyes) in our school on the morning of December 6. The only class in session at 9.05 was our own, whose room was on the south side. The great blast came from the north.
We had just finished singing the morning hymn, “Awake, my soul, and with the sun /Thy daily stage of duty run,” and were in the act of sitting down when we felt two distant shocks. The first came from the deep slate bedrock on which the city stood, a sort of earthquake in which the floor seemed to rise and drop in several rapid oscillations. A few seconds later the air blast smote us. In the same order there were two tremendous noises, first a grumble from the ground and then an ear-splitting bang. Some people afterwards said there were two explosions from the ship, but they were mistaken. Anyone who has heard the explosion of a depth charge at sea would recognize, on a minor scale, the same two sound effects.
It was like being shake by a maniac giant with one fist and then slammed on your head with the other. I was able to move and talk rationally, but the concussion left me in a dazed state for many hours, during which I regarded strange and horrible sights as calmly as if they happened every day. My left hand was cut by flying glass, but then soon healed.
The concussion was something else. For the rest of my life a sudden loud noise behind me, where I could not see or anticipate such things as a dropped tray or a slammed door, sent agony through my nerves. This was followed by furious anger at the person or persons who caused the noise. I had to learn to control this reaction but didn’t always succeed.
The effects in the classroom were swift and destructive. The windows vanished. The thick opaque glass in the upper half of each door, with wire netting embedded to prevent ordinary breakage, flew out whole. Below my row of desks a door-glass tipped forward, shot horizontally over our heads, and sliced deeply into the wall in front of us.
Fortunately we were sitting by that time. Had it been twelve inches lower it would have decapitated most if not all of us sitting in that row. The big clock on the wall just missed the headmaster and shattered on his desk. All the plaster sprang of the walls in large and small chunks, and filled the room with a fog of white dust. We jumped to our feet, staring at each other. One girl screamed (her cheek was cut from mouth to ear), but I don’t recall much crying out. For a few seconds we stood like a lot of powdered clowns with badly applied daubs of red paint here and there; then with the instinct born of routine firepractice the boys and girls dived through their separate classrooms, snatching coats and headgear off the hooks or off the floor and clattering away to run home.
By that time the cold air, rushing in through the empty window frames, had blown the white fog away and I could see the whole room clearly. I found myself like Casabianca’s boy upon the burning deck whence all but he had fled. I was the sole remaining pupil, and I stood by my desk gazing mutely at the headmaster. I had no conscious thought in staying. I suppose it was the instinct of any boy bred in a military life, looking to my commander for permission to leave, come hell or high water.
He was known affectionately and irreverently as Old Gander, a gaunt man with a long neck, bushy eyebrows and moustache, and a pate getting bald, with wisps of side hair brushed across it. He looked very wild now, with specks of plaster caught in all those hairs, and his eyes bulged. He said, “Thomas – is that you, Thomas?” I answered, “Yes sir!” then he stammered something that seems madly ludicrous today. Actually it was quite sensible. At the first shock, like everyone else in the city, he thought the explosion was confined to the building in which he stood. Many people, including my mother, thought that the house or shop or office had been hit by a shell fired by a raiding German warship off the harbour mouth.
With a long experience of school troubles, Old Gander put it down to something else. He said shakily, “Some…of the little boys…must have been…playing with dynamite…in the basement.” Kids sometimes stole dynamite from construction works like the new railway cutting a mile to the west of us. It was possible that some of the juniors, not due until ten o’clock, had come early to play in the warmth of the basement, where the furnace was.
Then Old Gander said more crisply, “We must search the building. I shall look downstairs. You go through the classrooms on this floor. If you find anybody injured, or see any sign of fire, come to me at once.” We parted on these errands at a run. I found the upper classrooms wrecked and littered but empty. Before I could peer into the auditorium I had to tear away some wreckage in a doorway. It was a spectacle. The architects had placed it on the north-facing side of the school and lighted it with a procession of large windows. The great blast had driven all of these windows inward, sashes and all, and they had swept the chairs and desks into a tangle of splintered wood against the farther wall. An hour later those chairs and desks would have been filled with tots of the lower grades.
I rejoined the headmaster in the first-floor hallway. He had just come up from the lower floor and basement, where he found no sign of life. Even the janitor had abandoned his furnace and fled. At the end of the hall was the ornate main entrance of the school, with tall and wide doors facing Saint Matthias’s church, and above them an arched fan light of coloured glass in various hues. The doors had gone out into the yard and so had the fanlight. A thin snow laid on the ground, and the fragments of coloured glass were scattered over it like a tumbled jigsaw puzzle. Old Gander and I walked out and saw at once that the origin of all this amazing destruction was not even near the school. The smoke of the explosion, a high pillar in the northern sky, was unfolding rapidly at the top in black and white convolutions to form a huge and hideous mushroom, growing incredibly in the sunshine of a winter’s day.
Indoors, with our south-facing windows, we had not seen the direct flash of the explosion, which was far brighter than the sun to those who did see it. The evil fungus in the sky was sprouting from the direction of the Narrows, where Halifax Harbour leads into the bigger inner anchorage called Bedford Basin. After the explosion there was an eerie silence, possibly because we were all deafened and in a state of shock, but now we heard a medley of shouts and cries and a great stir of people.
All of the houses across the street had shattered doors and windows like the school, and I realized suddenly that this calamity must have smitten my own house, less than two hundred yards away along Chebucto Road. I trotted into the road. Opposite the school and Imperial Oil wagon stood at a rickety angle on the edge of the sidewalk, with a pair of big horses lying on the ground, harnessed to the shaft. The teamster was squatting with a hand on each head, as if in benediction, and saying to me in a bewildered voice, “Would you think a man could stand a thing that killed a horse?” I made no answer and trotted on my way. Actually, the horses were stunned, and some time later the teamster got them on their feet and hauled the wagon away, leaving a small puddle of kerosene on the road.
When I reached our house it was like the school, with all the doors and windows gone and an avalanche of plaster covering the furniture and doors. Rags of window curtains waved in the cold breeze. I heard voices in the garden at the back and found Mother there, bleeding from breast and forehead, and my sisters Nellie, Winifred and the baby Hilda apparently unhurt. Mother said, “The Germans – those beasts – they’re shelling the city. We must stay out here behind the house.” She and the girls and the woman next door were all facing rigidly southwards towards the invisible sea. It seemed incredible that they had not noticed the frightful mushroom still growing in the northern sky. I pointed to it saying, “Something has blown up in Bedford Basin.” An hour or so later the neighbour’s husband came home. He worked in the north railway station and was one of the few who got out of it alive. His face was cut and smudged with soot, his clothes were torn, and he was gasping after his long run, but he was able to tell us that a cargo of munitions had exploded in the Narrows, the whole north end of Halifax was smashed, and much of it was burning.
We went into the house. Like most Halifax dwellings of the time it was heated in winter mainly by a tall iron stove (a type called Silver Moon), which burned anthracite coal.
From it a long stovepipe rose over the staircase and plunged into a chimney on the second floor. The explosion had blown down this stovepipe and buried it under a mass of plaster.
Fortunately the stove remained upright, and without more fuel its fire went out.
Like every other family in the houses still standing, our job was grim and simple. It was to make one room habitable for the coming night, and that room had to be the kitchen, whose cooking stove and short stovepipe were still intact.
I fetched a shovel from the cellar and cleared out the mess of plaster and glass on the kitchen floor, heaving it through the gaping window frames. The door leading into the hall and another into a small scullery had been blown off their hinges, but Mother and I managed to nail then together in a rough fashion and prop them into place. Next we had to cover the window frames. I found an old storm window in the cellar. It did not fit our kitchen frame, but we got it up and nailed it into place on the side facing west. For the north window we dragged a carpet out of the living room, folded it to get several thicknesses, and nailed that in place. All of this done in a hurry by an injured woman and a boy of fourteen, was a very inefficient job, but it had to do. We did not look for any help. Our neighbours had their own survival to worry about.
Mother had tied a piece of torn bedsheet about her forehead, but she was still bleeding badly there and from her breast. She had been looking out of north window at the moment of the explosion, and by a miracle she was not blinded as so many were. She remembered that, “all the house windows on North Street blazed as they do sometimes in a summer sunset,” and then, minutes later, she was picking herself up from the floor. My sisters were unhurt, although Nellie had an amazing escape. She had not gone to school that morning because she had a cold, and she was lying in her bedroom on the north side of the house when the blast came. The window blew inward right over her bed and drove slivers of glass through the panels of her door. She ran downstairs barefoot over all the little of rough and sharp debris without getting a scratch.