An Explosive Story

Bearing Witness
Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion

By Michael Dupuis  Foreword by Alan Ruffman  

Nearly a century ago, when the explosion of a freighter carrying munitions in Halifax Harbour took the lives of 2,000 people, traumatized survivors struggled to explain what they had witnessed. The task of telling their stories fell to journalists who rushed to get the story out of the city in the hope that aid would flow in.

In his new book Bearing Witness, Michael Dupuis shares first-hand accounts from journalists who reported on the explosion and documented its aftermath.

The result is an informative treatment of a catastrophe that one witness called “almost too dreadful to admit of description.”

Dupuis, a retired history teacher based in Victoria, published Winnipeg’s General Strike: Reports from the Front Lines in 2014. He takes a similar approach to Canadian history in his new book, reproducing articles published in both Canadian and American newspapers in the days following the disaster.

While Dupuis offers a well-researched general introduction to the Halifax explosion, he also lets the newspaper reports speak for themselves. The book features transcriptions of several dozen reports; Dupuis pairs them with brief biographies of authors, photographs and reproductions of headlines.

Articles published in the wake of the explosion capture the suffering of Haligonians, sharing their words and tallying their losses.

Reporters feared readers at a distance from the city could not comprehend the extent of a tragedy that involved the loss of 2,000 lives, the injury of 9,000 survivors and the widespread destruction of buildings, including hundreds of homes.

Adding to the crisis, fires broke out in the wake of the explosion, both telephone and telegraph service was disrupted and electrical wires were downed. The city was also hit by a blizzard the same day as the explosion, an added challenge both for those searching for survivors in the rubble and for people obliged to seek shelter in buildings whose windows had been blown out.

Dupuis reminds us that journalists faced many challenges specific to their task. Several reporters compared the conditions they worked in with a war zone. Reporter Tommy Gorman explained that, finding press offices abandoned by staff, he wrote his stories on a typewriter he stole from a shop with shattered windows. Another reporter described a haunting visit to the city’s empty telephone exchange, its floors covered with broken glass and its offices, like much of the city, cold and dark.

Dupuis’s esteem for the reporters whose work he shares is never in doubt. He dedicates the book to John Royayne, a young reporter who hurried to Halifax’s Pier 6 to report on the fire on board the Mont-Blanc, the munitions freighter which had been struck and disabled by a smaller boat, the Imo.

Royayne was at the scene when the munition boat exploded and did not live to share an account but, in a detailed timeline of the morning of the explosion and the days that followed, Dupuis celebrates the work of Royayne’s surviving colleagues as well as visiting journalists who came to cover the story.

Patterns surface in coverage of the event as the same stories are shared by different reporters. Prominent among them is a description of a mother who, having witnessed the death of seven of her eight children, carried in her arms an infant she believed had survived. Only when people met her in the streets and tried to comfort her did she realize the child she held had also died.

While these reports are a valuable source of information, they also offer insight into a rapidly evolving situation, one in which misperceptions of the disaster’s causes were common. Interviewees shared their initial assessment that the city was under attack by German forces. An early report speculated that the collision of the Imo with the Mont-Blanc was not an accident, and that the cause of the fire was instead a deliberate attempt by the Imo to sink the munitions boat before a fire on board could result in an explosion.

The personal tone of century-old press coverage shared in this collection is strikingly different from the objective tone that dominates front pages today. Journalists offer moving and, at times, very poetic reflections on the devastation they observed.

Their own trauma features centrally in their reports and is not pushed to the margins. One reporter regretted, for example, a glimpse of a fatally injured person, writing: “I shall always be sorry, as now my memory is indelibly seared by an impression I would gladly forget.”

This timely book, published as the centennial of the disaster approaches, brings a valuable archive into easy reach of the armchair historian. It will help readers both understand and share in the work of remembering this extraordinary event.

— Winnipeg Free Press, April 8, 2017

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