January 9th 1918
(The following is from the pen of a son of Rev. Dr. A. and Mrs. Chipman, of Berwick.)
MY DEAR BROTHER - I was at breakfast at the Halifax Hotel at 9.06 a.m., one week ago. There came an explosion which shook the building severely but did no damage that we could see or feel. In a few seconds the concussion reached us and the glass in the upper part of the window went flying across the room. Fortunately, and I feel selfish in saying it, I am uninjured.
There were perhaps thirty of us together at the time. We made our way to the door, each of us stopping and looking back with uncertainty or fear towards the harbor wondering where the next shot would strike. Each of us had in his mind the thought that with their wonderful skill the Germans had come under our guards at the mouth of the harbour and in a submarine were having their "fling" at the town. The sensation was precisely that of a building through which a shell had passed. Glass was crashing in all directions. The hallway and lobby were two inches deep in small pieces of thick plate for the pressure came equally upon each square foot of glass. Through the swivel doors we stepped with a stoop to sidewalk and street.
Up north was a great white cloud more strange than I had seen before. Later we learned its cause - the explosion of five thousand tons of munitions of greatest power. On either side and as far north as I could see except in windows which had been open at least an inch or two no pane or plate of glass was left intact. Such was the condition throughout three quarters of the City and every building suffered at least from breakage of glass. No materials from the ship came our distance, two miles. A shower of soot was felt. Then there came from every door "a Casualty," that is a person who, though more or less wounded, could walk. There were from fifty to two hundred of these within two blocks of our hotel and thirty of our people were more or less cut on the arms or neck or face.
My first work was to assist in a drug store which immediately became a dressing station. There was shown in the people themselves a sense of a shock but not of fear or confusion and each one did what he could for the other. The offices and stores as soon as their injured had proper assistance were deserted. People went home to find how their folks had fared. Here and there a car could be used. The electrics had stopped with the explosion.
Conveyances generally were given at once to the wounded. Within a few minutes I returned to my room for hat and coat. Nothing was disturbed. My window being open saved it. But across the hall a late sleeper was dressing. He had covered his head and in this way escaped for his room was showered with broken glass.
Then I went out to make my way more than six blocks to our laundry enquiring for friends at several offices on the way. I began to realize the extent of the damage and destruction, meeting everywhere the injured who were being rushed to hospital or taken home for first aid. In the laundry everyone escaped except one woman quite severely cut with glass. I moved up to the Common past the barracks from which a great truck was bringing its first load of wounded men.
These were blue coats - French -who were on shore for a visit. The roof of the Garrison Chapel had lifted up and dropped in. The side of Park Street Church had fallen in. The force was from without and came equally from all sides except in narrow spaces or between a stone building and one of wood.
The great Armoury, costing $180,000 lost glass and window frames to the injury of hundreds of men and its heavy slate roof was broken at the edge. Across the street here was an important corner, Cunard Street crosses Park Street at an angle. A recruiting hut was quickly turned into a relief station and to this and hastily through it came hundreds of cases, while around its sharp corner and across the Common back of it there rushed, as I saw them then and later, hundreds, I think thousands, of conveyances. There were great ferries, automobiles more than I could county, express waggons, delivery waggons, waggons of every kind, carts, slovens, baby carriages and even stretchers. As I stood for a minute below the corner I saw come around it a delivery boy erect on his seat as at parade, driving an old horse. In his waggons were three or four grocery boxes. A solider found it difficult to stop him and in answer to his question, "Why don't you stop" he fairly screamed "I have to deliver these just down there." Such was his controlling idea of duty, for he was capless and above his collar his entire head was a mass of blood. I mention the incident because it clearly reveals the spirit of thousands as I saw it on every hand, that fearful day.
There were soldiers and sailors everywhere; no one suffered for lack of attendance. I offered what assistance I could and continued my way towards the scene of the explosion. But I was not to reach this and I am very thankful that it so happened. I was relieved and did not have before my eye the destruction in the area two miles square over which the force of destruction spread.
A herald came running down the street with an order from the Military to rush to the open for the powder magazine at the Dry Dock was in danger and might explode any minute. Then there formed and I became a part of a procession such as the roads of Belgium know so well. The section was a congested one. The destruction on every hand was far greater than down town. Every human being that could walk or could be carried came into the streets throughout the entire city. The great Common was covered with thousands including the lame, the blind, the dead, and dying, the out - the quick and the dead - There, within ten or fifteen minutes, were assembled in the cold of a winter's day, with no snow on the ground, a light wind and sunshine. We waited for about two hours in constant apprehension, expecting an explosion that would level the remaining buildings. Fortunately the wind was light and from the south-east, blowing the fire from the city and saving it from complete destruction.
Near me I found a boy from the Naval College in blue uniforms of light weight. He had been badly cut about the head, face and hands. He had walked a mile to the relief station, then as now without hat or overcoat. I gave him my coat and tried to learn his condition. In the four hours that he was in my care he invariably refused to admit that he was badly hurt or in pain or even homesick. He was all of these for in addition to his wounds he was almost in a state of collapse from shock. I made this boy my particular care and if, as I hope, I was the means of helping him to come through then there is something to my credit in day of need.
No central control was established until night. The uninjured were too busy to think of disorder or even of self interest. There was nothing of hysteria or panic. In general the men in khaki and in blue directed transportation and rendered first aid. During the first day there was slight conception of the far reaching effects of the explosion and the demand for skilled assistance. This consciousness came with a rush on the first night and the second day.
Men whom I met were free to express their suspicion as to the cause of it and far and near the words were heard "An enemy hath done this." Suspicion was cast upon the character of so called relief ships as they had come and gone. Rumors as to ships on fire in the harbour and the alien control of this particular relief ship were rite. I talked with an officer of a steamer within a few yards of the Mount Blanc. In his mind there was no question but that the relief ship was to blame. He saw her hold to her course in the face of certain destruction. But only a thorough investigation, and such is being held, may fix the blame. Aside from this phase of the question, there was and is in Halifax a striking illustration of the horrors of war. Only war conditions could have wrought such destruction.
There were many very narrow escapes. The ways of mysterious force which covered the city were freakish at least. In the King Edward Hotel a man on the side of his bed dressing saw his door go past him and out the window. Two men, and I talked with the survivor, were standing near the hatch of a ship in the harbour. One said to the other "How strange that looks." He was pointing towards the fire which caused the explosion. In an instant this man was gone leaving no trace. A gun from the ship was found some distance away. A man was carried on a pile of lumber one quarter of a mile and escaped with his life. A ship steward was uninjured but the cleaver with which he was about to cut a quarter of beef was fixed three inches deep in the floor at his feet and the quarter of beef had disappeared. These are mere incidents among the rest of the strange happenings at Halifax.
Broken wires prevented sending out anything until late in the day except that by wireless. St. John was reached by way of Havana and New York. I was assured that I would be in the way and that my undisturbed quarters would be of value so I came away as soon as possible in a special train from the hitherto unused terminals at the south of the city. A friend had offered me a passage to Truro in an automobile which went out with operators and some 2500 messages of the Western Union. I was ready to go on this when the train went out. It was three o'clock when we reached Truro. Few of us had slept a wink. Messages were sent by telegram and telephone from Truro for friends and myself. I gave Mabel her first word saying that I was uninjured. This she could hardly believe and the service was so interrupted that very little could be understood.
I look back upon it with increasing distress. So many are anxious to hear the story that it has become almost a nightmare. This is to lessen the necessity to talk it over in detail. We are deeply thankful to have escaped and our sympathies as never before are enlarged and deepened.
As ever your brother,
Dec 13, 1917
Friday, Dec. 7, 1917.
DEAR MOTHER; - Just a few lines to let you know that I am getting along finely. I suppose you know, long before this, that I have been in hospital. I got a piece of shrapnel in the right arm and neck. It is getting on fine now and I expect to be in England in about a week's time. Don't think I will be doing any more fighting, and don't worry about me, as I am the happiest man over here. We are having some pretty cold weather now, but I am quite comfortable where I am. The gramophone is now playing "A Little Bit of Heaven" and I will think it is so when I get home again. I will be glad if you will send me fifteen dollars payable at an English post office, as we do not get paid, while in hospital. When I leave here I will be going to another in England. It is about four weeks since I had any mail. I have sent to the battalion and they will forward all letters on to me, and if I do not get them here they will be sent along after me when I leave here.
My address at present is Pte. R. N. Rafuse, 283268 42nd Battalion, Canadian, B.E.F., Bed 18, Ward L, No. 2 Australian General Hospital, B.E.F. France.
Remember me to all the girls and tell them I will write as soon as my arm is better.
By the way, we will soon be having Christmas and I hope you will all have a good time and that the war will be settled by then. Don't know if I will be having any turkey but, believe me, in all the hospitals the soldiers are well looked after and have a very good time. This letter has been written by a friend in the next bed to me. With love to all from ROBERT.
Letter from Overseas:
(Mr. Ezra W.A. Sawler, of Cambridge, furnishes us with the following letter from his friend, Pte. A.C. McGill.)
Dear Ezra. - Your letter arrived two days ago. Very glad to get a letter from home for they seem few and far apart. I am having some time. This is five weeks for me to be in bed. I got rather a bad smashing up; laid thirty-eight hours in a shell hole, before I got picked up. Anyway I got through with it all and am in Bradley, England. I have lost much flesh. To give you an idea how heavy I am. While having my bed made, the sister of the ward lifts me into another bed close by and does it easily. Before I was wounded I weighed one hundred and fifty pounds. It will be some time before I will be able to get out of bed. I have a great deal of pain and don't sleep much at night.
This is the third hospital that I have been in so far. This one is splendid and food is good. I have begun to think I am quite important at times to have nurses bring me coffee, egg and toast for breakfast. I also have swell dinners and can say I have a good appetite now.
Of all things I sometimes feel
that if it were possible, I would give the whole world to be back
home and find it as I left it. But it seems we have to take
things as they come. Speaking of France, the last push I was in I
saw more dead and wounded in one hour than in all the rest of the
time I was in France. It was absolutely awful I never want to go
through it again. They were piled knee high everywhere,
especially "Fritz." When you come across hundreds where
our fellows have bayoneted, it is a pitiful sight. Oh, but it
makes you feel great to get a whack at them, especially the
Snipers. It is surprising how quickly they run while the bullets
are whistling around them. I am finished with France at present
and quite harmless. I sit up in bed for a few minutes at a time,
but my head feels as if it were going around like a top. It's
wonderful how weak a person gets
lying in bed. I often think I can't stay here another minute.
I suppose Cambridge is getting along without me as usual, except missing the noise around the corner at night. Think of me back in Cambridge swinging a crutch and cane at the same time. I suggest that I will make a good apple picker with this attachment.
Hope you'll make this out. Pencil is poor, remember, I am on my back in bed.
Now I think I will wind up for this time as my hand is getting shaky.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Remember me to the rest of the family. I remain your old friend,
Alfred C. McGill,
73582 Ward A, Military Hospital,
Warminster, Wilts, Eng.