John Griffith Armstrong. The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002. x + 248 pp. $30.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-0891-0; $93.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-0890-3.
Reviewed by Chris O'Shea (Department of History, University of Guelph)
Published on H-Canada (August, 2003)
Searching for Intrigue
Searching for Intrigue
On December 6, 1917, two ships, the Imo and the Mont Blanc, collided in the narrow confines of Halifax harbor. The Imo was transporting supplies to refugees in Belgium, the Mont Blanc was a French munitions ship. The resulting explosion, which marked the most powerful man-made blast until the development of the atomic bomb, devastated a large section of Halifax, left twenty thousand people homeless, injured nine thousand, and killed over sixteen hundred. This tragedy struck a potentially crippling blow to a city that was one of the most important ports of the First World War. While previous works have examined the immediate consequences of the explosion for the people of Halifax, the relief effort that developed in response to the crisis, and the subsequent reconstruction of the city, little has been done to examine either the response of the Canadian navy or the inquiry which investigated the cause of the tragedy. John Griffith Armstrong has addressed these issues in his The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue and his work provides a valuable contribution to historians' understanding of these events. Armstrong develops his analysis through an extensive reading of archival sources, including British, Canadian, and American naval records, correspondence between government officials, and the personal papers and files of key individuals. The work also benefits from Armstrong's deft use of surviving letters written by his grandfather, who was stationed in Halifax at the time of the explosion. Armstrong's key argument is that the inquiry functioned to deflect criticism away from both the Canadian navy and the federal government. However, while his account is both informative and compelling, the work ultimately fails in its attempt to link the inquiry to a background of government intrigue.
The monograph may be divided into two parts. In the first half of the book Armstrong prepares the background regarding Halifax's naval role in the war effort, details events which led to the collision and the resulting explosion, and discusses the response of the Canadian navy. This section develops a strong insight into both the experiences of the individuals who witnessed the disaster and the efforts of naval authorities to secure the port and provide aid to the civilian casualties. Here we see a valuable picture of the valor of Canadian seamen both prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. This exploration provides the reader with both a detailed understanding of the events in Halifax and a firm appreciation of the magnitude of this event. The second half of Armstrong's work examines the subsequent inquiry that was held to investigate the causes of the explosion. Armstrong's negative perception of the inquiry is apparent in such chapter headings as "Goats to the Slaughter" and "Covering the Tracks." The fascination of Armstrong's account lies in the interplay between the community's demand that responsibility for the explosion be clearly established, the effort of the navy and federal government to shore up public confidence, and the desire of the shipping companies involved to escape culpability. Through his analysis of the testimony given to the inquiry and the reaction of local newspapers such as the Harold, Armstrong uncovers how these conflicting agendas were played out over the course of the inquiry. Armstrong's analysis provides considerable insight into the nature and influence of popular journalism during this period. As he notes, while the inquiry sought to understand the events which led to the explosion, public opinion and reaction was molded by the biased reporting of the Harold, which Armstrong characterizes as "journalism as yellow as that found in today's tabloids" (p. 121). Indeed, it could be argued that this reporting, which raised "public discontent to new heights" (p. 125), actually shifted public attention from the real issues of the inquiry, an argument that would have fit well with Armstrong's focus on intrigue. It is his exploration of the struggle to direct the course of the inquiry which represents the best element of Armstrong's work.
Ultimately, the inquiry revolved around the question of who was actually in control of the shipping at Halifax. As Armstrong reveals, at the core of the problem in Halifax was the lack of cooperation between naval authorities and the pilots. The navy's need to operate Halifax as a military port conflicted with the political desires of the federal government. On the local level this was evident in the tension between the naval administration and the civilian pilots, and in the lack of cooperation between civilian and military administration of the port that indirectly contributed to the eventual collision. While naval authorities were aware of these difficulties they made no effort to bring the civilian pilots under military discipline, in an attempt to avoid federal interference. While Armstrong demonstrates that this decision reflected political practice at the time, he also sees government intrigue operating. Clearly, if the government had failed to address this problem then it could, at least within public opinion, be held accountable for the ultimate consequences. This perception was clearly articulated in the report of Louis Demers who, as dominion wreck commissioner, prepared two reports for Judge Arthur Drysdale (p. 192). Consequently, Armstrong's perception of intrigue depends on the actions taken by the government to deflect this inevitable line of criticism. As his analysis demonstrates, while the inquiry's initial target was the local pilotage system, the ultimate function of the inquiry was to deflect criticism from the Canadian federal government and the navy through the sacrifice of Frederick Wyatt who was the Acting Commander in Halifax at the time of the explosion. One link in Armstrong's analysis of intrigue centers on William Henry (crown counsel) who informed Alexander Johnston (Deputy Minister of Marine and Fisheries) that he intended to reveal the endemic problems with the pilot system, place the blame squarely on the failure of local authority, and "provide a justification for transferring the control of the pilotage to the Minister" (p. 133). While this clearly suggests a preconceived agenda, Henry quickly lost his ability to direct the course of the inquiry when Charles Burchell, who represented the owners of the Imo, shifted public attention onto the failings of Wyatt.
Ultimately, despite Henry's best efforts, the inquiry ruled that Wyatt had been negligent in his duty and he was charged with manslaughter. While he was subsequently acquitted, as Armstrong emphasizes, the navy essentially abandoned Wyatt. He was "completely on his own, and it was he who would stand trial, not the [Royal Canadian Navy] or the federal government" (p. 196). Consequently, while Henry's initial position seems to point to an attempted cover-up, it is clear that he was unable to control either the course of the inquiry or its final result. This failure reflects a problematic element within Armstrong's analysis, as he never quite makes a convincing case for political intrigue. Armstrong's most direct attempt to establish an atmosphere of intrigue and cover-up is evident in his analysis of the government's response to Demers's report. The fact that this correspondence survived only in Robert Borden's papers allows Armstrong to conclude that "it was so sensitive that the Department of the Naval Service did not keep copies in its files" (p. 194). However a single omission is not conducive to an analysis of intrigue. Rather, Armstrong's work reveals a relatively straightforward process of damage limitation on behalf of both the navy and the federal government and, as Armstrong eventually acknowledges, the reader was simply "teased with the spectre of intrigue and cover-up" (p. 204). While this type of hook certainly catches the reader's attention and undoubtedly makes the book more marketable, it nevertheless serves as a point of frustration for the academic reader. This artificial search for intrigue constitutes the only objectionable point in an otherwise fine work. Despite this shortcoming, Armstrong's account provides an excellent insight into the workings of the inquiry and, through his analysis of the testimony, the reader gains a clear understanding not only of the circumstances of the collision and explosion but also of the background of conflict between the clashing civilian and military administration of the harbor. In this sense Armstrong's work represents an invaluable resource for anyone seeking to understand the events in Halifax.
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Chris O'Shea. Review of Armstrong, John Griffith, The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue.
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