The Halifax Explosion of 1917

Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917

“People were packed in our car like flies. Some of them came to the place with noses shot off, eyes put out, faces slashed with flying glass, limbs torn and distorted. One man came in with blood streaming from what was originally his face. On one occasion while we were working around a wrecked building we could see a little baby 50 feet or more underneath a burning mass crying for aid. We could not get within 30 feet of the child and had to watch while it burned to death. Men and women children were lying on the streets and hundreds must be buried beneath the wreckage.” ~Esmond P. Barry, Eyewitness to the Halifax Explosion of 19171


I first learned of the Halifax explosion of 1917 from my mother’s biography of her mother, Velma Jane Moore, who was attending Dalhousie University in Halifax at the time of the explosion:

I remember her telling about the awful Halifax explosion. Wikipedia says that on 6 December 1917 the S.S. Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying munitions collided with the Norwegian SS Imo in Halifax Harbor. A fire on the French ship broke out and the munitions exploded. The explosion was the largest man-made explosion until the A-bomb, 2,000 were killed by debris and fires and 9,000 injured. I can see why Velma remembered this.2


When my husband and I visited Halifax in July of 2017, we made a point of going to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to learn more. Once we’d finished viewing the Halifax explosion exhibit and learned the full horror of what had happened, I was struck by just how incongruous the following part of the exhibit seemed. The central image of the little girl flying through the air conveyed a sense of whimsy that was really quite jarring.

Image: The Halifax Explosion Memorial Quilt, Collision in the Narrows Exhibit, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 2017

The following map from the Nova Scotia Archives3 shows where Velma would have been on the Dalhousie campus in relation to the waterfront. The blue shading at the bottom of the map indicates the area that was leveled.

Given the distance of Dalhousie from the waterfront, I wasn’t sure whether the campus would have sustained any damage. A search through the online University archives revealed photographs of buildings that had received some relatively minor damage, mostly broken windows. The Dalhousie Gazette reported that two students were seriously injured. One student lost an eye due to flying glass and another sustained injuries to her face and hands.4 Several people in the Law Library at the time of the explosion suffered minor cuts and bruises.5

Dalhousie University Science Building after the Halifax Explosion of 1917

MacDonald Memorial Library after the Halifax Explosion of 1917

The Dalhousie campus community rallied to help the injured:

Within fifteen minutes after the explosion, probably every student in the higher three years was rendering first aid, and the majority of the students from every faculty were assisting in a variety of ways as numerous as the needs they saw. In a few hours most of the medical and a goodly number of the others had found places of usefulness in the dressing stations, and particularly at the Victoria General and Camp Hill hospitals. . . . The fifth year men were at work for hours at a time, doing things in the operating rooms and wards of the V. G. H. of which specialists need not have been ashamed. Students of the fourth year did dressings, gave anaesthetics, and in many ways made practical application of surgical knowledge recently acquired.6


In the interest of balanced reporting, there was a brief mention in the article that, “There were a few regrettable actions by the students. A very few failed to do their duty as college men and women . . . ” 7

In addition to the medical students, the young women on campus were singled out for particular mention in two different articles:

Dalhousie girls responded nobly and promptly to the call for voluntary helpers. The day of the explosion many of them went directly to the hospitals, emergency and permanent, where, among the horrible confusion and sickening scenes, they did what they could towards assisting the doctors. Others helped in distributing food and clothing, or in house to house visiting.8

If there is any one class of Dalhousians which, in the writer’s estimation, is deserving of special mention, it is the young ladies of the University, who so quietly went to work, assisting in the dressing of wounds and ministering to the comfort of patients amid scenes of agony and death to which they were absolutely unaccustomed, and which are known to have shocked the nerves of even those accustomed to surgical work.9


I was proud but not surprised to find Velma listed among the Dalhousie girls who had provided relief to the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the explosion:

Ward work at the various hospitals: Freda Creighton, Bert Colwell, Merle Colpitt, Anna Creighton, Miss Clark, Marion Doane, Gwen Fraser, Ruth Glasel, Miss Harris, Miss Lindsay, Emmeline and Arabella McKenzie, Christine McKinnon, Sally MacDonald, Jean MacDonald, Christine MacCleod, Nell Melrose, Velma Moore, Florence Murray, Eliphail Nichols, Margaret Pugsley, Jean Ross, Frances Russell, Katherine Tattrie.10


However, I found the final article concluding the  Dalhousie Gazette‘s front page coverage of the Halifax explosion to be in poor taste, even for those of the adolescent persuasion:


The Faculty, always so tenderly considerate of the students, felt that, in spite of this catastrophe, it would be shameful to deprive them of the Christmas Examinations, and so, on the twenty-first of January, they played Santa Claus, by presenting us with a series of one hour quizzes. Then, lest we grow blase with inaction, they ordained that lectures should continue through the Examination period. Great was the gnashing of teeth among the afflicted, as the explosion had blown every molecule of many a normally near-vacuum. Everyone agreed that district visiting was much more interesting than the Ablative Absolute, but alas the callous Senate refused to adopt this humanitarian idea.11


For Additional Information:

The Nova Scotia Archives has a wealth of primary sources about the Halifax explosion, “including records accumulated by Archibald MacMechan, professor of English language and literature at Dalhousie University, Halifax NS. Immediately following the 1917 Explosion, MacMechan was requested by authorities to prepare an official history of the explosion and was given the title of director of the Halifax Disaster Record Office, 1917-1918.”12 Dr. MacMechan was Velma’s English professor.

Image: W. G. MacGlaughlin, Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917, 1917, photograph, Reference no.: W.G. MacLaughlan Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1988-34 no. 14, A Vision of Regeneration, Nova Scotia Archives.

1“Eyewitnesses Tell of the Awful Scenes in Streets,” The Boston Globe (Boston), December 7, 1917, 6.

2Kay Brown Gauffreau, “The Ancestry & Life of Velma Jane Moore Brown” (unpublished manuscript, December 2013), 25.

3“Plan Showing Devastated Area of Halifax City, N.S.,” map, 1918, Reference no.: N.S. Board of Insurance Underwriters Nova Scotia Archives V6/240 – 1917 Halifax loc., A Vision of Regeneration, Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax.

4“Casualties at Dalhousie,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

5“Casualties,” Dalhousie Gazette.

Photograph of the Dalhousie University Science building broken windows, MS-2-718, PB Box 14, Folder 23, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Photograph of MacDonald Memorial Library after Halifax Explosion / PC1, Box 31, Folder 12, Item 2, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

6“Dalhousians and Medical Relief Work,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 2.

7“Medical Relief,” Dalhousie Gazette.

8“Relief Work among the Women,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

9“Medical Relief,” Dalhousie Gazette.

10“Women,” Dalhousie Gazette.

11“Not Even T. N. T. Could Stop the Exams,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

12Province of Nova Scotia, “1917 Halifax Explosion: Personal Narratives and other materials,” Nova Scotia Archives, accessed July 4, 2018,

Dalhousie & the Great War: Valedictory Address

Ernest Parker Duchemin, Valedictorian, Class of 1918

Our earnest wish is that we may turn these lessons to good account, and that we may prove not unworthy graduates of a University with such a noble and imposing roll of honor. ~Ernest Parker Duchemin


Ernest Parker Duchemin was valedictorian for Dalhousie University’s Class of 1918, which included my maternal grandmother Velma Jane Moore. In his valedictory address, Duchemin spoke eloquently of the effect of the Great War on the campus community:

In several respects the career of Class 1918 has been unique. Ours is the first graduating class whose entire course has been passed under the shadow of the great War. The spectre of the war has been with us continually. It has haunted us at our studies as at our sports, in the lecture rooms, at our College functions, and in all the varied activities of College life. The War has interpreted history, literature and philosophy for us in new and impressive ways. It has broken our class circles by the departure of those who have responded to the call of Country. Its stern realities have been brought home to us with terrible force as the announcements have periodically come of one Dalhousian after another having fallen on the stricken field, dying that the noblest ideals of civilization might live. Its glories and heroisms have stirred us as we have read of the numerous decorations for distinguished service on the field that have come to those whom we are proud to claim as alumni of our Alma Mater. It would be strange indeed if a collegiate course passed under such circumstances should not impart to the present graduating class lessons which were not prescribed in the curriculum, and material for the building of character not to be discovered in any formal system of ethics. Our earnest wish is that we may turn these lessons to good account, and that we may prove not unworthy graduates of a University with such a noble and imposing roll of honor.

When class ’18 came into existence with the opening of the Autumn session of 1914 it consisted of thirty-seven members, whose numbers were afterwards increased to seventy-two by the admission of thirty-five additional students to advanced undergraduate standing. But its ranks have been decimated at that tomorrow’s convocation but twenty will receive their academic degrees. Thirty-four have enlisted for service at the front. Three of these, Carson, Grierson and Hyde, have made the supreme sacrifice, and their names are enshrined on the University’s Roll of Honor as a heritage and inspiration to future generations of Dalhousians. Others have discontinued their studies in response to the Country’s call in other fields of service. Never have the forces of disintegration wrought such havoc with college life.1


Cyril Hyde, Dalhousie University Class of 1918, Freshman Year

George Henderson Campbell

Students and Alumni of Dalhousie rejoice to know that while the War has brought stressful times to all Canadian Universities, it has also brought substantial marks of appreciation of what our own College is doing along the lines of higher education. Dalhousie has received a number of generous benefactions since the beginning of the War. Two of these are worthy of special reference. in 1917 the Chairman of our Board of Governors, Mr. George S. Campbell, and Mrs. Campbell made the splendid donation of $25,000 to found scholarships for deserving students in memory of their only son, George H. Campbell, B.A. of 1915, who enlisted during his senior year and was killed while on active duty at the front.2

George H. Campbell on the 1914 Dalhousie Football Team

Eric Reginald Dennis

During the present year the Hon. Senator Dennis and Mrs. Dennis made the generous gift of $60,000 to the Senate of Dalhousie to found a Chair of Government and Political Science to commemorate their son Lieutenant Eric Dennis, who fell fighting at Vimy Ridge a year ago. Dalhousie is honoured in being made the custodian of these monuments of Nova Scotia heroism. And what more fitting monuments could be erected to the memory of these gallant sons of our province, who gave their lives for freedom and democracy? Both gifts express, in a far-seeing and enlightened manner, the very principles for which the donor’s sons have fought and died. In both cases these public spirited men have the same patriotic object in view, namely, to democratize higher education in Nova Scotia. The George H. Campbell scholarships will bring the advantages of University training within reach of a larger number of Nova Scotia boys and girls. The Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science–the first chair of its kind to be established in any Canadian University–will broaden the influence of Dalhousie as a force in the moulding of the future citizenship of the country.3


In reading Duchemin’s account of the Campbell and Dennis gifts to the University, I was particularly struck by his expression of the human need to find good coming out of tragedy. Giving to others in the name of our loved one makes the grief easier to bear. The George H. Campbell scholarship and the Eric Dennis Chair of Government and Political Science are still a part of the Dalhousie University tradition and as such now honor the parents as well as the sons.

Image:, retrieved 7/1/2018.

For More Information:

Additional information about the war records of George Henderson Campbell and Eric Reginald Dennis can be found on the Canadian Great War Project website. The website’s searchable database includes entries for over 180,00 individual soldiers.

Information about the burial sites of George Henderson Campbell and Eric Reginald Dennis can be found on the Canadian Virtual War Memorial website. Images of their grave markers are included.

An account of Dennis’s death at Vimy Ridge can be found here.

Dennis is also commemorated at Acadia University, where his father was on the Board of Governors. Read about it here.

Image of Ernest Parker Duchemin, Composite photograph of Dalhousie University Arts, Science and Engineering class of 1918, PC1, Box 26, Folder 40, Climo’s Studio, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

1E. P. Duchemin, “Valedictory,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 10-11 (June 18, 1918): 14.

Image of J. B. C. Carson, Composite photograph of Dalhousie University Arts, Science and Engineering class of 1918, PC1, Box 26, Folder 40, Climo’s Studio, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Image of Vernon Grierson, Composite photograph of Dalhousie University Arts, Science and Engineering class of 1918, PC1, Box 26, Folder 40, Climo’s Studio, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Image of Class of 1918 Freshman Year, PC1, Box 27, Folder 7, Climo’s Studio, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Photograph of George Henderson Campbell, UA-32, Box 10, Folder 1, Item 5, Dalhousie Alumni Association, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

2Duchemin, “Valedictory,” Dalhousie Gazette.

Photograph of Dalhousie University Football Team in 1914, PC1, Box 22, Folder 20, Gauvin & Gentzel, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

3Duchemin, “Valedictory,” Dalhousie Gazette.

Chronicle Herald, “Soldier’s Story: Capt. Eric Reginald Dennis,” The Great War, accessed July 1, 2018,

Dalhousie & the Great War: The View from the Front

Image: “An Improvised Desk,” Canadian War Museum

This post is the thirteenth in a series I’m writing about my grandmother Velma Jane Moore’s experience attending Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (I hadn’t planned to write a series. I just keep finding information and perspectives that interest me!)

Velma graduated in 1918, so the Dalhousie campus community was very much affected by the Great War of Nations. The student newspaper, the Dalhousie Gazette, chronicled the war’s effects on the campus community as soon as Canada declared war on Germany in 1914, with calls to eligible young men to enlist in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, the establishment of an Officers’ Training Corps, and the formation of a Dalhousie Stationary Hospital for service overseas.

The published lists of students and alumni serving in the armed forces grew longer and longer as the war progressed. Velma’s older brother Fred appears in several of them. By the Gazette’s February 1st issue of 1917, the Honor Roll of names took up fourteen columns over nine pages. By 1918, only 20 of Velma’s classmates from the original 72 would still be enrolled at the University.1

Soon letters from the front began to appear in the Gazette expressing a strong desire to stay connected with the Dalhousie community left behind. The following excerpt provides an example of the role that the Gazette played in keeping spirits up:

“Life in the Trenches”

. . . At present I am seated in a tiny dugout waiting for the mist to rise so that I can observe the Bosche lines through my periscope. It is nearly 48 hours since I have had a wash and thank goodness that a hot bath is one of the comforts back at our battery.

I had a nice surprise the other evening when upon entering my sleeping dugout a Dalhousie Gazette was seen lying upon the blankets. It did not take me long to remove trench waders and coat and jump into bed. There, by the light of a candle resting upon a bayonet, stuck into the sandbag wall, I read it from cover to cover.

R. E. G Roome, P. T. O.2

There was also a strong desire in these published letters to describe the experience of war to let the campus community know what it was really like.  I’ve included a representative selection below:

“Dalhousie Graduate at the Front Writes of His Personal Experiences”

. . . I dislike writing anything about the war. The newspapers probably contain nothing else. I can imagine you read the war news as entertainment and you do not see in it the life and death struggle of an Empire. We hate to face the obvious.

So far I have escaped without a scratch, but Heavens, how I dislike thinking of those who were less fortunate. Only last week one of my best friends a chap by the name of Wardrope from Aberdeen, was shot right beside me. The two of us had returned safely from the rear to the firing line, where we were about to assume our positions when I noticed Wardrope fall. A bullet had passed right through his chest. The body was left lying there. I will always remember the lighted cigarette which remained between his lips even when dead. All these things are in the days work.

S. C., Class of ’003

Image: “A Canadian Grave,” Canadian War Museum

“A letter received from the front says:”

‘The trenches here are simply frightful, a few inches of greasy mud being all over the place. Our trenches are noted for being a veritable death-trap. They are called “Hell Corner” by the Canadians, and “Glory Hole” by the British Tommies.

‘The salient stretches to within a few yards of the German lines, where bomb-throwing by trench mortars heaving so-called “sausages” is indulged in day and night by the occupants of the separate trenches.

‘The sausage and aerial torpedo are not nice, I think they are about two feet long and are fitting with high explosive. If they strike an object true, they move few tons of earth some distance.

‘Sniping is kept up day and night, but we seem to keep even with the enemy.’4

Image: “Shrapnel Bursting,” Canadian War Museum

Hugh S. Moore, M.D., Class of 1915

. . . I am very pleasantly situated in a French town just behind the firing line. I am attached to a field ambulance and we have an old French brewery fixed up as a hospital. If it is necessary we can accommodate about 200 patients and make them fairly comfortable. I have a ward of my own to look after, but I only have about thirty patients. Of course I am a transportation officer also, and have about 60 horses to inspect every day, to see if they are properly groomed and the harness cleaned up.

Just across the street in a wineshop is the belle of the town and one of the prettiest girls in Northern France. She has numerous admirers, of course. 756 English officers was the last count and many French soldiers.

We officers have very nice quarters for our mess. It is a large house formerly owned by a French millionaire, who is now in the French army. The front room is luxurious with easy chairs and beautiful carpets and this is where we eat. We certainly live well–oysters, chickens, wine, etc. Even in the trenches the officers have the very best.5

“A Day Near Ypres”

Lem J. Miller, Class of 1901

. . . Thus the day wears on until about five o’clock when the evening hate commences and lasts for a couple of hours. To-night it seems a little more severe than usual and while we are still thinking about it there comes the faint odor of gas with the stinging sensation in the eyes and air passages. Over to the right the cloud is rolling along, dull red at the bottom changing to a green at the top. The word comes along to “stand to” and we improvise respirators out of handkerchiefs and sleeping caps and make ready in case the attack is directed against us.

This time, however, fortune favors us; the wind changes, driving the fumes back along the German trenches, smothering the occupants and driving them out. Their flight is so hurried that their communicating trench is filled very quickly and many break out across the open. As the cloud rolls on, they are exposed to the direct fire of our field and machine guns. The gas cloud is superseded by one of shell smoke and the escaping Bosches are cut down by the score.

L. J. M., ’016

Image: “Gas Attack on the Somme,” Canadian War Museum

. . . Readers may like to know what we humble privates do in a hospital whose duty is ‘not to reason why but to do and die.’ I shall tell you what things happened today.

At four o’clock a.m., the “Fall in” sounded. We roused ourselves, pulled on our clothes and went to the A. & D. hut. Of course some of the ubiquitous N. C. O’s were around to encourage us in the hurrying. Shortly after the wounded came, some on stretchers and some sitting. The latter were able to walk to the wards while the others were carried by orderlies. About half-past five all were in the wards. Then cocoa was served to us at our mess. At six, patients about to travel were evacuated to England. None went from the ward I am orderly in. We set to work bathing the new arrivals. At half past seven I went down to breakfast. After coming back to the ward I assisted in serving the breakfast to the patients. The other orderly finished washing the new patients and I scrubbed lockers for the rest of the morning. Very romantic, isn’t it?

. . . .

Even with such a gigantic struggle going on so near, life is rather monotonous, strangely enough, it is even more more so at times at the firing-line. . . . I am sorry not to be able to rise above the prosaic and write a glowing letter.

F. B. Fox7

Image: “Casualty Clearing Station,” Canadian War Museum

Online Sources for Letters and Diaries

As I began looking for photographs to accompany this post, I was struck by how many sites there are online for the primary sources so prized by family and social historian alike: letters and diaries. All digitized, all providing first-hand accounts of what World War I was like for those who served in it. If our own ancestors didn’t leave letters and diaries, we can get a good sense of what their war experience would have been like by reading first-hand accounts written by others.

Or can we?  After my initial excitement over the wealth of first-hand accounts and what insights they might provide to family historians, I reread the letters in the Dalhousie Gazette and realized just how significant the differences among them are.

That being the case, before going to first-hand accounts written by others to gain insight into the experience of an ancestor who served in World War I, it would be advisable to thoroughly research his service record first. What branch of service was he in? What was his military occupation? What rank was he? Where was he stationed? Where was he deployed? And, equally important, what were the specific dates?

I will leave you with an example of what I expect was not the experience of the typical doughboy in World War I–a pilgrimage to Canterbury, England of two university men well-versed in British literature and history:

Roy D. MacNutt, Class of 1916

“A Pilgrimage to Canterbury”

. . . Canterbury! There seems to be a charm in the very name. Probably it is due to association. From the time when we first began to study English history, we have continually heard of Canterbury. It has become endeared to us through the writings of Chaucer and the love Dickens shows for it in “David Copperfield.” It was its fascination–historical and literary–that drew us, two Dalhousians to it.

. . . .

[Our lodging] was 11 Canterbury Lane–the dearest little lane and old brick house (only 300 years old) imaginable! It was like living in one of Dickens’ stories to spend a night under that roof. . . . We fell asleep in Canterbury’s moonlight and awoke Sunday morning with the beautiful peal of Cathedral chimes in our ears.

. . . .

It was dinner time and no matter where a soldier is–at meal hour he is hungry and so we looked about for a restaurant. On our way we passed the Sun Inn (built in 1503). It is the “Little Inn” of Micawber where he used “to wait for something to turn up.”

. . . .

. . . [W]e visited Saint Augustine’s Monastery, St. Martin’s Church–the oldest Christian church in Great Britain, built in the time of the Romans, St. Dustan’s Church, the Canterbury Weavers, King’s Bridge and River Stour, Chequer’s Inn on Mercury Lane (where Chaucer’s “Canterbury Pilgrims” stayed). We saw the “House of Agnes” and the “‘Umble ‘Ome of Uriah Heep” and the West Gate and the Don Jon.

By the time we saw all this the Canterbury darkness was again upon us. A good supper and a last walk through the oldest city in English we were soon on the train again and all too soon reached Shorncliff Station.

Roy D. MacNutt, ’16, S. J. Dick, ’198

Image:, Creative Commons License

1Matt Reeder, “Pomp and Circumstance: Dal Convocation through the Years,” Dal News, last modified June 2, 2016, accessed June 3, 2018,–dal-convocation-through-the-years.html.

Photograph of R. E. G. Roome: Collage of Dalhousie Hockey Team – Halifax, Nova Scotia – 1914, Item PC1, Box 22, Folder 7, Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

2R. E. G. Roome, “Life in the Trenches,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 8 (March 10, 1916): 1, 8.

3S. C., “Dalhousie Graduate at the Front Writes of His Personal Experiences,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVII, no. 8 (February 6, 1915): 7.

4“A letter received from the front says:,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 4 (December 21, 1915): 13.

Portrait of Hugh Stewart Moore : Class of 1915, File PC1, Box 61, Folder 26, Kellogg Library Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

5Hugh Moore, “Correspondence,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 5 (January 14, 1916): 7.

Photograph of Lem J. Miller: Photographic collage of the Dalhousie University Arts and Science faculty and class of 1901, File PC1, Oversize Folder 32, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

6Lem J. Miller, “A Day Near Ypres,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 7 (February 22, 1916): 7.

7F.B. Fox, Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 5 (January 14, 1916): 9.

Photograph of R. D. MacNutt: Class of 1916, Item PC1, Box 46, Folder 3, Item 12, Dalhousie University Photograph Collection, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

8Roy D. MacNutt and S. J. Dick, “A Pilgrimage to Canterbury,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 8 (March 10, 1916): 1, 5.

Dalhousie & The Great War: “Tea in War Time”

I find this poem a good representation of the experience of women, such as my grandmother Velma, who had loved ones in the armed forces fighting overseas in the Great War of Nations.

Image: New-York tribune. [New York N.Y] (New York, NY), Sep. 17 1916.

1J.H.M., “Tea in War Time,” Dalhousie Gazette XLVIII, no. 2 (November 17, 1915): 13.

Dalhousie & the Great War: “Don’t Let Patriotism Blind Your Vision”

Nova Scotia Highlanders Recruiting Office, Wolfville1

In my last post, I wrote about the wave of patriotism that swept over the Dalhousie University campus upon Canada’s entry into The Great War of Nations in 1914. As I noted in that post, support for the war was not universal on campus. Today I’m going to  share some representative excerpts of a month-long debate in the Dalhousie Gazette sparked by an opinion piece written by Robert Jamieson Leslie, Class of 1915.

Don’t Let Patriotism Blind Your Vision, by Robert Jamieson Leslie, Class of ’15

Robert Jamieson Leslie, Class of 19152

It is decided unpopular just at present to look upon the war from any other but a distinctly British viewpoint. We read the loss of Germans with delight; we herald the loss of Allies with anguish. A German merchantman is sunk on the high seas by a British cruiser. What a brilliant example of the efficiency of our navy! Three of our ships are torpedoes by the Germans. What a disgraceful act of underhanded meanness!

. . . It must not be forgotten, however, unless we allow patriotism to scale our eyes, that there is just as vital a prejudice on the thither side of the [Battle of the] Aisne. Each and all of the belligerent nations are, from their standpoint, right, and it would be fatal to our reputation for intelligence to assume that the god of battles has chosen us.

. . . Some people imagine that they are fighting for that spark, the neutrality of Belgium. Some gladly throng the enlistment offices feeling deeply their obligation to France. Others of us fight in the fear that if we don’t come out, we’ll be wiped out. The most of us can find a good moral ground to load a rifle and kill a man. The rest of us are driven forward by that phantom Patriotism.3

STUDENT SCORES PRO-GERMAN WRITER: And upholds the righteousness of Britain’s cause, by Andrew Joseph MacDonnell, Law ’16

. . . That such a puppet [of pro-German sentiments], then should dare to stand up in our midst and question the honor and righteousness of His Majesty’s cause in this unfortunate carnage as is at present taking place along the French, Russian and Austrian borders and filling the whole world with horror and dismay, is a matter of treachery, ruthlessness, and arrogance as is worthy only of the Kaiser himself.

. . . Further, the writer has the audacity to go on, “We are English. Years ago we found opportunity to lay our fingers on the best part of the world’s surface. We got it by blood. We got it by theft. Enough! We have it . . . ” Conquests, when Britain acquired her territories, were all of a sanguinary nature. We could not obtain these territories without the shedding of blood no matter how just our cause, but none were acquired by theft. This is another absolute falsehood. The charge is traitorous and is an insult to every loyal Canadian and indeed unworthy of a student of this University.4


. . . “Let not patriotism blind our vision” but let us look up to the statesmen of England as men who knowing far more about the situation than we do, after untiring efforts and with unlimited patience endeavored to maintain peace and failed. Many of us assuming the role of critics would do well to remember the old adage:

“I do not know,” admits the wise.
“I know,” the braggart fool replies.
Midway the modern highway lies,
“I do not know but criticize.”5

Enter, the Apathetic Man.

Frank D. Graham, BA, 1913, LLB, 19156


What fools these mortals be! Can we deny it? Look how we struggle and strive and kill. Look at the fruit of our war. Thousands of dripping bloody messes that once were men made in the image of God. In the images of God and we blot out each other’s lives. For what? In fine, merely for possessions. As if it were the key to Heaven we fight and tear and murder for this or that piece of ground and it becomes a burden, a care, a problem on him who finally acquires it. Of what consequence is it whether we struggle to retain or struggle to obtain? Dogs that we are, we growl over our bones, considering not at all that we are already full and fat and favored.

. . . We even fail to see what a matter of extreme indifference it is whether the World a century hence is called Britain or Germany or Utopia, provided its people are enjoying their full measure of happiness.7


Can the truth be told in respect to the present crisis–the whole truth, the comprehensive truth, the pro-German truth, the pro-Ally truth?

In Mr. Graham’s admirable effort “The Apathetic Man” and in a article written by myself headed “Don’t let Patriotism blind your vision” there was an attempt made to look at certain phases of the war question in a manner which has brought showers of abuse. Against both these articles bitter and voluminous criticism has been directed. This has not only been of a private nature. The public press [The Halifax Herald] has seen fit to publish Mr. Graham’s article and to cover it with editorial mud. The Herald’s comment was dastardly and shames the journalistic profession.

. . . But there are those from whose eyes the scales have fallen, those who are unpatriotic enough to doubt, who feel that the potentate is cynical, that to more than Kitchener [British military leader] a man is but a unit. This type of mind cannot be expected to be patriotic, to enthuse and to wave a flag. This type of mind cannot think think the way it should think. It can’t help but be “a little tired of it all.”

Should those who think in this way hold their peace? No! Is one man’s opinion as good another’? Yes! Is free speech an anomaly? No! That is the way these questions would have been answered four months ago. But the world has been turned upside down since then and with it the answers to those questions. We should only think one way; we should only talk one way.8

In my next post, I’ll share a poem written to express the experience of women, such as my grandmother Velma, who had loved ones in the armed forces fighting overseas.

1Nova Scotia Highlanders Recruiting Office, Wolfville, image, Reference no.: CC. 412 Randall House, Wolfville Historical Society, An Act of Remembrance, Nova Scotia Archives.

2Image of Robert Jamieson Leslie: Photograph of Dalhousie Foot Ball Team – 1914, PC1, Box 22, Folder 20, Gauvin, Gentzel & Company, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

3Robert Jamieson Leslie, “Don’t Let Patriotism Blind Your Vision,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVII, no. 3 (October 22, 1914): 7.

4Andrew Joseph MacDonnell, “Student Scores Pro-German Writer: And Upholds the Righteousness of Britain’s Cause,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVII no. 4 (November 14, 1914): 7.

5“Let Not Our Patriotism Suffer from the Blindness or Hallucinations of Others,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVII no. 3 (November 4, 1914): 4.

6Photograph of Frank D. Graham, 1913, PC1, Box 45, Folder 7, Item 19, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

7Frank D. Graham, “The Apathetic Man: The Other Side of the War. Why an Officers’ Training Corps is an Anomaly,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVII no. 3 (November 4, 1914): 3-4.

8Robert Jamieson Leslie, “To Think or Not to Think: That Is the Question,” The Dalhousie Gazette XLVII no. 4 (November 14, 1914): 3.