Trinity Bay man in great Halifax explosion

Reprinted from Offbeat History


Benjamin Smith

Reference has been made in the past couple of weeks to the fact that December 6 was the sixtieth anniversary of the dreadful Halifax explosion of 1917. Two ships, the Imo and Mont Blanc collided in the Narrows leading to Bedford Basin and one of them, which was filled with munitions, blew up. A large section of the city was destroyed and more than a thousand people killed and several thousand injured. It was a sad Christmas in the Nova Scotia capital.

It is very likely that there was a number of Newfoundlanders involved in that frightful tragedy although this columnist does not have many instances of this involvement. There is one story, though, of a man from Trinity Bay who was serving in the Royal Navy at the time. His name was Ben Smith and he hailed from Hillview. It is possible that Mr. Smith may still be alive although he would have to be a very young man at the time.

Ben Smith was one of five brothers who served in the British Navy in the First World War. At least four of them, including himself, were already naval reservists, apparently having put in some time aboard the old training ship HMS Briton, originally the Claypso, which was stationed in St. John’s from 1900 onwards.

The Smith brothers, at the outbreak of the war in 1914 were all living at Goosebery [Cove], Trinity Bay; at least that’s where their home was; but they were fishing out of St. John’s when war was declared. They were among the first to walk aboard the Briton and by dark, the same day, the ship had about four hundred sailors on board, all naval reservists coming from various parts of the island.

They left St. John’s to go overseas on November 6, 1914, on board the SS Franconia. After serving a short time in the naval barracks at Devonport, England, Ben Smith transferred to the Mediterranean. They crossed the English Channel to Boulogne in France and then boarded a freight train that came from the battlefront after discharging troops. They travelled in old-fashioned boxcars, after they had been shovelled out, and about a foot of straw put in each car for the men to lie on during the long trip to the south of France.

There were about five hundred sailors and soldiers on their way to relieve others in different places and there was only one other Newfoundlander besides himself. There were thirty men in each boxcar. When night came on they would all lie down as best they could on straw. Every meal hour the train would stop at a station, the door would slide open and a tin or two of corned beef would be passed in, along with a few packets of biscuits, hard and dry. Wine was passed to them in mugs. Many a hungry night they spent on the straw during the fourteen days it took the troop train to make the journey, not just to southern France, but on into Italy as far as Taranto at the southernmost tip of that country. Ben Smith never forgot the day they went through the Alps. It wasn’t pleasant.

Finally the train pulled into Taranto and he was assigned to a ship and spent the next two years sailing around Malta, Greece and Egypt. He was glad, late in 1917, to get a month’s leave and was able to come to Newfoundland to see his family and friends. When his leave was up he transferred to a Canadian warship, HMS Niobe. She was originally a British man-o-war that had been transferred to Canada and was actually the beginning of the Royal Canadian Navy. She made a visit to St. John’s before the war.

The account doesn’t say where Ben Smith joined the Niobe. Most likely he had to go to Halifax. In any case he was in the Niobe at the time of the cataclysmic explosion, December 6, 1917, when the city was half destroyed. Ben Smith was below decks when the blast occurred and perhaps he owed his life to that fact. As he hurried on deck in the confusion and terror he lost his cap, and when he reached the deck the first thing he saw was the bodies of two of his shipmates who had been killed. He thought to himself: “Well, they won’t need their caps any more.” So he picked up one of the dead men’s caps and put it on his head and wore it until the end of the war.

He saw a lot of grim sights on that terrible day in Halifax after the Niobe’s crew was allowed ashore but ordered to stay out of the explosion area. As the men were walking down the streets they heard a woman screaming from a widow. They asked her if there was anything they could do. She beckoned to them to come up and three of the sailors went into the house and the woman asked them to take out her invalid mother, aged 80 years, and bring her downstairs so she could be taken into the country for safety. It was lucky they went in for there were so many dead and dying and injured people about that no one would likely have bothered to rescue the old lady.

After Ben Smith and the other men left Halifax and went to sea again and back to the war, he was on a ship that was on patrol in the North Sea. One day they stopped a merchant ship from Norway, bound for Germany with a general cargo. Six sailors, including Smith, led by an officer boarded the merchant ship and took over a prize crew. After a day and a night of steaming, very slowly, for it was foggy, they got a real fright about 9 o’clock in the morning.

It was pretty thick fog and they could see little or nothing. All hands were in uniform and two of the British sailors were on the bridge, guarding the Norwegian captain. Suddenly, they heard a loud roar and, to their surprise, as they took over the starboard side of the captured ship, they saw a German submarine.

The captain of the U-boat called to the Norwegian captain to come aboard the submarine and bring the ship’s papers. The captain did as he was told, but for some reason or other, he did not tell the German that his ship was already in British hands. If he had done so, Smith and his shipmates would all have been taken prisoner or even killed in the fighting that would have started. The German captain allowed the Norwegian skipper to resume his voyage little knowing that in a very short time the ship and her cargo would be entering Scapa Flow in the north of Scotland.

In connection with the Canadian warship Niobe, an interesting story is told about her predecessor and namesake. In May, 1874, the people of St. John’s were advised to keep a sharp lookout for a British man-o-war that was scheduled to soon arrive on the coast of Newfoundland to take up the regular duties of Fishery Protection vessel. She was to do this in conjunction and co-operation with a French man-o-war coming out for the same purpose, a dispatch had been received to the effect that the British ship was the Niobe, a steam warship. She was in command of Captain David Boyle and had already achieved something of a reputation under her commander, Sir. Lambton Lorraint, during an incident in Caribbean.

However, the Niobe didn’t come to St. John’s; instead she went straight to St. Pierre and her rendezvous with the French warship, the Kersaint. Their patrol was to take them to all the west coast from Cape Ray to Point Riche and through the Strait of Belle Isle, around the northern capes and into White Bay. When the Niobe arrived on the Newfoundland Banks she met real “caplin weather,” with a steady southwesterly gale and a fogbank you could cut with a knife. French bankers were arriving regularly at St. Pierre, most of them after exceptionally long trips from France, some as long as seventy days. They didn’t seem to mind the fog very much and made land by frequent use of the land.

The Niobe was feeling her way along as best she could towards the French islands in the thick weather with visibility down to a hundred yards in any direction. This was her commander’s first time on that part of the coast and he wasn’t familiar with the tides, currents, winds and soundings, as the French and Newfoundland fishermen. It was the soundings that proved the Niobe’s undoing. At that time the soundings off Miquelon were the same as those off Cap Blanc (White Cape).

Some mistake was made on board the British warship and the Niobe steamed in towards land, in the thick fog, quite unsuspecting her impending fate. There was a heavy swell running and it was too late when they realized the whitecaps were really breakers; next thing the Niobe had piled up on the reefs off Cap Blanc and became a total wreck. However, there was only one fatality: a bluejacket was killed when a boat dropped from the davits on top of him. The crew of the ill-fated Niobe, the predecessor of the Canadian warship, was taken off the island by the French ship Adonis.


Trinity Bay man in Great Halifax Explosion


Transcribed by Wanda Garrett
Clipping provided by Baxter Smith

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.