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  • That Was Genius Team

Episode 114 - A Rowdy Witches Hen Party (Canada Week)

Tom's Notes:

Canada week (public episode)

Sorry about all the sneezing last week Sam. How was it to edit? You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve been salt water douching this week. It stops my nose from tickling and as a bonus, brings back fond memories of beach holidays as a child.

I did one of the most manly things that a manly man can do: I sharpened the blade on a lawnmower. I also then played swing ball so aggressively that I woke up with agonising tennis elbow.

Audience feedback

Kristian: I spent an hour in Bendigo a few years ago on a road trip through Victoria. They were hosting a Marilyn Monroe festival of all things, highlighted not by a full size figure of her as a wheelchair, but an 8m tall sculpture of her in the iconic 7 Year Itch pose.

Marni: Someone, help me! You guys are in my head and it's too distracting! I've been reading "An Atlas of Extinct Countries" by Gideon Dafoe... And the narrator inside my head has Sam's voice (with occasional interjections of laughter from Tom!) Am I too far gone?!!

Obi Won Kenobi voice: “Buy a train set Marni, you don’t need to train your calves, skip the calf raises, buy a train set. You know you want to.”

Brennan: Greetings from the heartland. I hadn't been listening to podcasts for the 8 months or so and I started listening back up a few weeks ago. I forgot how hilarious you guys are. Last week I nearly drove off the road I was laughing so hard. Please keep making the podcast as long as you can. Anyways, here in Iowa we have a hobo convention every year and I was thinking hobos might make an interesting topic for a future episode. Best regards.

Welcome to the Order of the Bathroom to Jon.

Finally a shout out to Bill in Baton Rouge, which I understand is in LA. He loves the podcast. I reckon ‘Baton Rouge’ is what the French call rhubarb. Pour moir? Ah! Le baton rouge avec le crème anglaise si vous plait. Merci.

I’m going against the grain this week and not finding a stupid historical source with obvious opportunities for toilet humour. I’m talking about an event that is most definitely historically interesting although not inherently funny, in fact it is most definitely a disaster, but I’m sure we’ll still have a bit of tasteful fun. We’ve always had a few Canadian listeners, so apologies if you know all about this one. Sam does, but he’s going to pretend that he doesn’t. Stay tuned for the nob jokes.

Let me take you to Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 6th 1917. First thing in the morning, a Norwegian steamship called the Imo casually headed out of Halifax harbour. The Imo was carrying supplies for the Belgian Relief Commission, presumably herring flavoured chocolates for special occasions. Only joking, this was essential food! When the Germans occupied Belgium in 1914, the Belgians really struggled to feed themselves. The country was heavily urbanised and the small amount of food they did produce was requisitioned by the Germans to feed their soldiers. So, the Belgian Relief Commission set to work getting supplies to the Belgians. It was an American entity run by Herbert Hoover, the future president of the United States who is now famous for the giant vacuum cleaner built during the Great Depression that sits on the Colorado River…

“Mr President Sir, this giant vacuum cleaner doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of holding back the water.”

“It isn’t working! Damn it!”

“That’s a much better suggestion. Now what shall we do with the vacuum cleaner?”

The Belgian Relief Commission experienced problems, namely ensuring that the food they delivered to Belgium was used to feed Belgium and not the Geris. It was for this reason that the British were very unhappy with the Commission. Anyway, the Commission was successful on account of ensuring that the supplies were handled by members of the Commission and not Belgians, because the Americans were not under German rule. I read somewhere that the food was thus considered American property right until it reached a Belgian plate; GERMAN ACCENT “Yoink, this is mine now, you will not be eating eggs on toast tonight, but I will. I am Hans, your fat German au pair.”

Anyway, back to the Imo, as it was casually puffing out of port, it spotted a SS Mont-Blanc; a French cargo ship. It’s worth pointing out here that Halifax was a very important coastal town during the First World War because of its location on the East Coast of North America; it was a great departure point for anything needing to get from North America to Britain and France. In fact, its North America’s nearest large port to Europe. Because of this strategic importance, it had fortified gun emplacements all around the dock and anti-submarine nets that were opened to allow traffic through.

I’ll also give a brief description of Halifax because some of us are very familiar with its streets. Its sits on the south side of The Narrows, which lead to the Bedford Basin. On the other side of The Narrows is Dartmouth, they’re connected now by the Angus Macdonald Bridge and the Murray McKay Bridge as anyone from Halifax would know. Dartmouth Commons are very nice by the way, as are the Halifax Commons with the Citadel. If you fancy a bite to eat, I recommend Baton Rouge Steakhouse and Bar or maybe McKelvies; both down in Waterfront.

Anyway, I’m getting carried away, SS Mont-Blanc was carrying something far more exciting than Ferrero fishy. It contained 2925 metric tons of explosives and was destined for France.

So as I was saying, Imo was heading out to sea, but it was doing one thing terribly incorrect. It was travelling on the east side of The Narrows, not the west side as was customary. There was no excuse for this; the captain of the ship was familiar with the rules. It was also later claimed by the captain of the SS Mont-Blanc that the Imo was travelling far too fast. The SS Mont-Blanc had spent the night outside the port waiting for the morning when anti-submarine nets would be opened. Despite its rather explosive cargo, other ships were not told to stay put until it had negotiated its way into port. The two ships attempted to manoeuvre out of each other’s way but failed largely due to a series of fucked up communications. Imo struck SS Mont-Blanc at around 8.45am and within minutes was drifting away, but not before sparks from the collision had lit dried picric acid. This picric acid was nasty stuff and soon set alight to barrels of gasoline on the deck. By now, there was a flume of smoke drifting high into the sky and onlookers were wandering down to the port to rubberneck. Others were just standing at their windows watching (not a good place to be when an explosion happens) But what happens when explosives meet Belgian chocolate? Well, it’s a little bit like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory meets George’s Marvellous Medicine. The crew of the SS Mont-Blanc were the only people who seemed to be aware of what was about to happen, because they were rowing for their lives towards Dartmouth leaving the Mont-Blanc to drift towards a pier.

At 9.04am, the ship blew up. At the time, it was the biggest man-made explosion in history; bigger than when Goliath ate those out of date prunes. In fact, it is quite possibly still the biggest non-nuclear explosion. It was 3 to 4 times larger than the one in Beirut in 2020 that was all over the news and only 7 times less than atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

2.5 square kilometres were levelled and fires broke out all across the city due to the fact that it was winter, fires were on, and buildings had collapsed into them. Anyone standing at a window had the window shatter in their face as the shockwave rushed out from its epicentre. Hundreds were blinded, thousands had severe injuries, many were reportedly decapitated by the glass breaking although I’m not going to delve into gory historical rubbernecking here. In fact, windows smashed as far away as Truro (the one in Nova Scotia; 100kms). A heavy gun from SS Mont-Blanc landed over 5km away, part of its anchor (which was huge) landed over 3km away and the Imo was tossed onto the shores of Dartmouth. The blast created a tsunami that was 18 metres high (60 feet) and a First Nation settlement of Mi’kmaqs (Meeg-mas) on this side of the Halifax Harbour was also completely wrecked. Charles Mayers, who was an officer on another ship was reportedly thrown a kilometre through the air but survived the landing.

Around 1600 buildings were destroyed, around 2000 people were killed and around 9000 were injured. Tens of thousands were left without adequate shelter in a Canadian winter.

In the aftermath of the blast, the deputy mayor took control of things. Luckily for him there were military personnel in the city who he was able to call upon. It also didn’t take long for naval ships to arrive in the port and the crews began the search for bodies as well as setting up the ships as floating hospitals. Firemen arrived before the end of the day from hundreds of kilometres by train. Supplies and medical staff soon arrived too. People and supplies flocked to Halifax to help and money flooded in from as far away as Australia. The day after the blast, a blizzard swept through the city which was either seen as a good thing because it helped put out the fires, or a bad thing, because people were freezing and without shelter.

A local school was set up as a morgue to process the bodies. Interestingly, the man in charge of the morgue used a system that had been invented only a few years earlier by his father, in 1912, to identify those who died in the sinking of the Titanic. A process that also took place in Halifax.

In the years after the blast, those piloting the HM Mont-Blanc were blamed. This was later reviewed and both the Mont-Blanc and the Imo were found to have been equally to blame for the disaster. The last remaining survivor of the disaster; Kaye Mcleod Chapman, died in 2017 at the age of 105 and to this day, the people of Halifax donate a Christmas tree to Boston as a thank you for their support after the blast.

Here’s a final ‘uplifting’ story, Vincent Coleman was operating the railyard a short distance from the pier that SS Mont-Blanc collided with. He found out early on that the SS Mont Blanc was laden with explosives. He began to flee with some colleagues when he realised that there was a passenger train arriving soon. He returned to his post and sent out an urgent telegraph message to stop the train. This message was reportedly: "Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbor making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye boys." Coleman then died in the blast but his actions saved the passengers on the train and also alerted the Intercolonial Railway to the imminent disaster helping it to respond immediately.

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