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Category Archives: Military History

The Halifax Explosion

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Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917

Library of Parliament collection, Library and Archives, Canada

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives

The Ugliest Runner

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Eric LiddellEric Liddell is known today largely because of the film, “Chariots of Fire”, in which he is portrayed.  He was known as a man of conviction and faith, but was also ridiculed for his ugly, ungainly running style, mouth open, head thrown back and arms flailing.  In 1932, the journalist W.W. Marsh remembered Liddell “running with that extraordinary gait of his, like a stricken stag”.  But as Harold Abrahams, Olympic 1924 winner of the gold medal in the 100m race (the one which Liddell famously refused to compete in because its final would be on a Sunday), surmised, “People may shout their heads off about his appalling style. Well, let them. He gets there.”

Born in January 1902 to Scottish missionaries in Tientsin, northern China, Liddell was educated in China, and later in a boarding school for missionary children near London.  When his family returned to the UK on furlough from China, he would live with them (mainly) in Edinburgh.  Athletics were merely a way to fill free time for Liddell, whose goal was to return to China as a missionary, following in his parents’ footsteps; his most famous quote sums it up:  “I believe that God made me for a purpose; but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

We know him as a runner, but in fact his entire career in running was  only from 1921 to 1925:  His first meet was for the Edinburgh Athletics Club in 1921; within 2 years he was running races beyond the Scottish borders and became known as “The Flying Scotsman” (named after the eponymous train famous for its record-breaking speed).  Within those four years he also completed a degree in science (he later taught science at the Anglo-Christian College in Tientsin), became a renowned preacher, and won seven caps for Scotland in Rugby.  While his Olympic fame would seem to be the crowning achievement of his life, he still considered sport a hobby, and even ran in a few meets while living in China; but his true goal was not the “cinder track” but the mission fields of China to which he returned a year after the Olympics were history.

Eric Liddell, The Flying ScotsmanFrom 1925 to 1943, Liddell served as a missionary in China.  In 1941, he sent his pregnant wife and their two daughters to the safety of her parents’ home in Canada, while he went to serve the poor at a rural mission station in Xiaozhang, where he relieved his brother Rob, who left to recover from illness.  Though he had been planning to follow his wife within a few months, as the Japanese made inroads into China Liddell had to relocate to Tianjin, from which he was interred in 1943 in the Japanese internment camp (Weihsien) along with members of the China Inland Mission and children of missionaries.  He never saw his family again, and never met his third daughter, Maureen, who was born in Canada.

Even in such dire circumstances, when the POWs began forming cliques to protect and provide for themselves, Liddell was known as a selfless Christian who gave his whole heart to doing what he could for those around him:  He organized games, Bible studies, taught science to the children (who referred to him as Uncle Eric), and shamed the richer inmates into sharing the foods they smuggled into the camp.  Langdon Gilkey, who also survived the camp and became a prominent theologian in America, said of Liddell: “Often in an evening I would see him bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance – absorbed, weary and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the imagination of these penned-up youths. He was overflowing with good humour and love for life, and with enthusiasm and charm. It is rare indeed that a person has the good fortune to meet a saint, but he came as close to it as anyone I have ever known.” ( “50 stunning Olympic moments: No8 Eric Liddell’s 400 metres win, 1924”. The Guardian)

David Mitchell, a child-inmate in the camp with Liddell who went on to become the Director for Canada of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, said this of Liddell:  “Eric stood out among the 1800 people packed into our camp, which measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily rollcall when the guards came to count us. One day a week ‘Uncle Eric’ would look after us, giving our teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all women) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children and how much he missed his own.”  (Eric Liddell, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“)

Little did Eric know that his death would come only months before the liberation of the camp and the end of World War 2:  Suffering from an undetected brain tumour, the malnutrition and fatigue of prison life took its toll, and Eric passed away suddenly on 21 February 1945.  He was buried in the garden behind the Japanese officers’ quarters, his grave marked by a simple wooden cross.  His last words were reported by a fellow missionary to be, “It’s complete surrender”, referring to how he had given his life to God.

His grave and his writings were in danger of being forgotten; a few men dedicated years of their lives to finding both, and have restored his memory to us.  His only book, “The Disciplines of the Christian Life“, is now available in paperback and Kindle formats, allowing his powerful voice to speak down through history to us today.

Famous Last Words: Major General John Sedgwick

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Killed in the 1864 Battle of Spotsylvania by a sharpshooter, his ironic last words were:

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—.”

General John Sedgwick. Source: Wikipedia

Major General John Sedgwick. Source: Wikipedia

The Dying Art of Sailors’ Shanties

Because the days of Sail are mostly long gone except for re-enactment vessels and small private vessels such as yachts, a great tradition is being lost to the winds of time:  The Sea Shanty.  Shanties were songs sung by sailors; they were sung not only for the entertainment factor, but the rhythms kept the crews in time as they hauled in anchors, drew up sails, tightened ropes, scrubbed the deck, and any number of other duties aboard their ship.  Specific shanties were used for the short haul, the Halyard, Windlass, Capstan, or the Foresheet, because those shanties had the best rhythm to get a particular job done.  Musicians try to keep the songs alive today, but they are a ghost of what they once were, and what they once meant and represented; they were the life blood of any Ship of the Line.

For sheet music, check out The Shanty Book, Part I, Sailor Shanties, by Richard Runiciman Terry.

For an interesting article on shanties, including various video clips with live performances to hear the rhythms and flavour of the shanties, Please click on the image below.  Take a few moments to enjoy the songs!  Some of the videos are the songs sung to a series of historical images to do with sailing, so they’re a twofer!

capstan_shanty

The Deaf Princess Nun

Princess Alice of BattenburgPrincess Alice of Battenberg, christened Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie (born 25 February 1885 at Windsor Castle – 5 December 1969 at Buckingham Palace), later Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe.  She was born completely deaf, yet learned to read lips at a young age and could speak several languages.  Alice grew up in Germany, and was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  In a time when royalty had little to do with the commoners, she was an unconventional royal who placed the importance of people over privilege and wealth.  She was devoted to helping others, and in the turmoil of her own personal life never lost sight of her devotion to God and her commitment to helping those less fortunate.

At the age of 17 she fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece, and they were married in 1903.  They had four daughters and one son; their daughters went on to marry German princes, and their son Prince Philip married Elizabeth II, Queen of England; Alice is therefore the grandmother of the Princes Charles, Andrew, Edward and Princess Anne.  She and her family lived in Greece until political turmoil caused the royals to flee in exile in 1917, when they settled in a suburb of Paris.  Alice began working with charities helping Greek refugees, while her husband left her and the children for a life of debauchery and gambling in Monte Carlo.  She found strength in her Greek Orthodox faith, yet relied on the charity of wealthy relatives in that period of her life when she had no home to call her own, and no husband to help raise her children.  Understandably through the stress of circumstances, she had a nervous breakdown in 1930; dubiously diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was committed suddenly and against her will to a mental institution in Switzerland, without even the chance to say goodbye to her children (Prince Philip, 9 at the time, returned from a picnic to find his mother gone).  She continually defended her sanity and tried to leave the asylum.  Finally in 1932 she was released, but in the interim her four daughters had married (she had thus been unable to attend their weddings), and Philip had been sent to England to live with his Mountbatten uncles and his grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven.

Alice eventually returned to Athens, living in a small flat and devoting her life to helping the poor.  World War II was a personal dilemma for her as her four sons-in-law fought on the German side, while her son was in the British Royal Navy; yet in her home she hid a Jewish family safely for the duration of the war.  She also remained in Athens for the duration of the war, rather than fleeing to relative safety in South Africa as many of the Greek royal family did at the time.  She worked for the Red Cross in soup kitchens, and used her royal status to fly out for medical supplies, as well as organized orphanages and a nursing circuit for the poor.  The German occupied forces assumed she was pro-German due to her ties to royal German commanders, and when a visiting German general asked her if he could do anything for her, she replied, “You can take your troops out of my country.” [For an interesting film on this period in Greek history, see “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001), starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz.]

After the war ended, Alice went on to take the example of her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (who had been formulating plans for the foundation of a religious order in 1908 when Alice met her in Russia at a family wedding), and founded a religious order, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, becoming a nun (though she still enjoyed smoking and playing cards) and establishing a convent and orphanage in a poverty-stricken part of Athens. Her habit consisted of a drab gray robe, white wimple, cord and rosary beads.

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

In 1967, following another Greek political coup, she travelled to England, where she lived with her son Prince Philip and her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace until her death in 1969.  Her final request was to be buried near her sainted aunt in Jerusalem; she was instead initially buried in the royal crypt at Windsor Castle, but in 1988 she was at last interred near her aunt in the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In October of 1994 her two surviving children, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess George of Hanover, went to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to see their mother honoured as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for having hidden Jews in her house in Athens during the Second World War.  Prince Philip said of his mother’s actions, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”  In 2010 the Princess was posthumously named a Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.

Information Sources:  Wikipedia; The Accidental Talmudist

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Thoughts on War and Murder: The Outcome is Up to Us

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I don’t often make personal commentary on this site to historical issues; they are what they are, and distance from a time as foreign to me as it is to most of my readers makes any commentary either a moot point or comes from a skewed perspective.  But I make an exception this time, because I see a horrific history beginning to repeat itself and that demands my attention, and yours, as we still have it within our power to prevent it from perpetuating, or to at least change the outcome.

Below is a photo from an interesting article on the topic of the de-nazification of Germany after World War 2.  I would encourage you to read the short article it is attached to, by clicking on the image.  I must say that reading the comments below that article is just as eye-opening; most of the people who commented did little more than spout their ignorance, splashing it out and displaying it for all the world to see.

German soldiers react to footage of concentration camps, 1945

German soldiers react to footage of concentration camps, 1945

But there is a holocaust happening today, and in America it has become a multi-million dollar industry, its running costs paid for largely by Americans’ tax money.  I’m sure most people have heard of, or seen, the Planned Parenthood scandal videos (if you have not, do take the time to Google them, watch them, and form your own opinion about them).  There are not one or two, but a dozen or more of them; undercover videos of PP execs talking about the murder (abortion) of humans, and the parcelling out of human organs and body parts for sale; the callous way they can speak of such atrocities truly smacks of what die-hard Nazis must have been thinking, or even voiced.  I am fairly certain that if Hitler had known how to generate money from selling body parts out of the death camps, he might have had a lot more silent supporters in the West.  That sounds harsh, but greed for power, territory or money is at the heart of most wars and genocides.  Now you may not agree that abortion is murder; but what else is it, if a human life is premeditatively and violently ended?  If a human female is pregnant, the pregnancy will not produce an elephant or a litter of kittens.  A disturbing difference between the reactions of the soldiers then and people now is that today we are becoming visually jaded; photo manipulation is an assumed tactic in media such as magazines and ads; if we saw models for their true forms and conditions, we’d more often than not be appalled or sickened, or at the very least shocked by imperfection.  So when an unmanipulated video or photo comes our way, a gut reaction is to mistrust it; but that should not prevent us from searching out the truth, and informing ourselves nonetheless.

Another borderless war is raging; it is a war that has had its victims since the arenas of Rome and Nero’s human torches:  A war against Christians.  In recent months the atrocities have been escalated by ISIS, with countless beheadings, tortures, rapes, kidnapping of Christian men, women and children to sell into slavery or forced into brutal “marriages” with ISIS soldiers (who likely torture, rape and kill them in short order).  The war has long been perpetrated in China, where some Christian pastors have been in tortuous prison, in conditions most people would not even consider keeping a dog, for forty years or more.  Just because of what they believe.  Years ago the West made a marginal fuss about human rights issues there; but since China has opened up to become a lucrative trading partner, all criticism on that head has been silenced.  No crime was committed by the Christians, they are no menace to society, and yet they still rot in Chinese prisons, holding firmly to their faith (I won’t go into the very valid reasons why they hold firmly, in this article).  On the contrary, where Christians are, sanity and reason tend to enter a society or a crisis; they are the first responders in most catastrophes, with churches organizing food, shelter, aid and counselling for the traumatized before most other NGOs can get their boxes together.  They are the ones mobilizing volunteers to rebuild homes, pick up the pieces, and put things back together long after other aid workers have left.  Yet the horrific persecution continues, and is largely ignored by the western press; instead, celebrity nut-jobs get more coverage and they dare to call it “news”.

I will not draw my own conclusions from the thoughts in this article; I reserve my firm convictions for my inner self, and leave the conclusions to you, the reader.  But please form your own opinion!  Don’t let it be formed by the news media, popular interpretation of events, or social media buzz.  Future generations will look back on this current generation and see these defining moments, and condemn us as failures, or laud us as history-shapers.  Become informed about these issues; for only when a people are informed can an intelligent solution be found for current issues (which leads people of conviction to action), and only then will the danger of a tragic history repeating itself be thwarted.

200 Countries Throughout 200 years in Four Minutes

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Hans Rosling, a Swedish statistician, medical doctor, academic and speaker, has taken thousands of statistics and condensed them into a fascinating visual presentation covering the economic and health factors and changes of 200 countries, from 1810 to 2009, in a four-minute video.  Please click on the image below to watch!

Hans Rosling - Health Equals Wealth Statistics

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