The Nature of an Army, Part 8: Courage versus Desertion

Halifax harbour, December 6, 1917

The sun was beaming down the bustling port, though the morning air was frosty.  At 8:40 am an unmarked ship was steaming into the harbour to join a convoy of Allied ships heading for the war zone.

This French ship, christened Mont Blanc, was carrying munitions in her hold: 2366 tons of picric acid; 250 tons of TNT; 62 tons of gun cotton.  In addition, 246 tons of benzol sat in tins on her deck – the perfect lighter fluid for the explosives below.  And she bore none of the warning flags of a munitions ship; to do so, the captain later argued, would have made her the target of every German gunner on the ocean.

Heading away from port was the Norwegian steamer Imo, sporting the huge letters “BELGIAN RELIEF” on her side, thus identifying her cargo as grain and clothing destined for war refugees.  Not realizing the nature of the Mont Blanc, the Imo chugged directly toward her, intending to pass quite closely.

The pilot of the Mont blanc gave the signal that his ship would pass starboard to starboard.  The Imo gave a conflicting signal; “We’ll pass port to port.”

“Stop! Cut the engines!” Captain Lemedic of the Mont Blanc shouted into the engine room intercom.  In an awkward sort of dance, the ships went toward each other, jerked backward, then lunged forward again.  The bow of the Imo crashed into the hull of the Mont Blanc, penetrating about a third of the way through the deck and the forward hold.

The tins of benzol were punctured and the chemical trickled out along the deck.  The grinding of metal on metal sent off a shower of sparks that ignited the benzol and blue flames began to shoot upwards.  Captain Lemedic ordered the Mont Blanc pilot to pull away from the Imo.

At this point he faced several choices.  He could send crewmen down into the hold to scuttle the ship – in which case the crew might all drown or be blown to smithereens.  He could have ordered the ship to reverse engines and head for the open sea.  The crew would certainly have died; the city might have been spared.  He chose the third option: abandon ship.

Fearing she’d blow any minute, the Captain and crew dived into the lifeboats and rowed furiously across the channel to the Dartmouth side.  Abandoning the boats they dashed across the beach toward a clump of spruce trees and threw themselves into the snow banks.   (Apparently they instructed some people to run, but no one seems to have made any attempt to warn Halifax of its danger.)

Unmanned, the Mont Blanc with her satanic cargo blazing, drifted on the tide right into the harbour and crashed into a pier, setting it on fire.  For the next twenty minutes folks gathered round the docks to watch the ship burn.  Others observed from their houses.

Then she blew.  A geyser of smoke bright red flame shot five miles up into the sky, forming a weird mushroom.  The explosion caused a tidal wave, an earthquake, and a giant air concussion.  Hardly a glass pane in Dartmouth or Halifax was left intact.  Thousands watching from their windows were blinded and stabbed by shards of flying glass.

Within a day 1900 people died; 8000 were injured.  Property damage: in the neighbourhood of 50 million.  The suction produced by the explosion yanked nails out of wood frame houses; the 40 foot tidal wave crunched buildings and dragged people back into the harbour in its recession; the earthquake destroyed stone and brick structures.  Fiery chunks of steel, bits of the Mont Blanc’s hull, rained from the sky, igniting many fires.  Like a giant fist, the air concussion snapped trees and flattened two square miles of north Halifax.

Ten thousand people found themselves homeless.  As many as could moved into Red Cross tents in the fields – and that afternoon a blizzard swept into the area, bringing sleet and snow and blowing the flimsy tents down.  The storm raged for a week.

One of the fires started by the explosion was at the military base.  A north-side family that still had a home was experiencing the miseries of the blizzard and the wife’s feet were bleeding from flying glass.  Her husband was tucking her and the children under what blankets he could find when three soldiers banged on their door.

“You’ll have to hurry to the south end of the city,” they shouted.  “A fire’s raging at Wellington Barracks –the garrison magazine is burning and there’s enough powder there to blow north Halifax to kingdom-come.”

Chilled to the bone, they joined hundreds of other wretched folks fleeing toward the south end of the city.  All afternoon they stood on the plain in the frigid wind, anxiously watching the smoke rising from the magazine.

But the dreaded blast never came.  Lieutenant Olmstead, the officer in charge, called for volunteers to flood the building, threatened by flames on three sides.  Every man in his battery volunteered, knowing that one lick of flame might send them all skyward.  They bravely dragged their hoses into the arsenal and pumped for hours – until they were standing up to their chins in icy water.  Not until all danger was past did they leave the job.

Deuteronomy 31:6  Be strong and of a good courage, fear not, nor be afraid of them: for the LORD thy God, he it is that doth go with thee; he will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.

I’ve observed different times that when a person puts his own life on the line for the good of others, God honours that sacrifice and often intervenes in miraculous ways to save the day.  (The biblical Book of Esther is a good illustration of this.)  But when someone takes the coward’s way out and runs from trouble, others have to pay the price.

In the case of the Mont Blanc crew the cost was phenomenal.  But even in family units someone must pay the cost of a desertion.  Spouses literally desert far too often.  Sometimes one partner is domineering and the other begins to ‘run away’ emotionally, withdrawing into silence to avoid arguments.  In both cases its usually the children who must pay.

Standing up for our own point of view and arguing till we’re blue in the face isn’t the answer, either; this just creates more hostility.  But when we take this whole problem to God and seek His help and advice, we find a way that works better than all our human solutions could.  He  sends His Spirit to work in the hearts of both parties to bring us to a compassionate understanding.  And when children see Mom & Dad resolving problems and forgiving each other’s faults, they gain a valuable example that will bless their own marriages.

Suicide is the ultimate in running away.  It’s the ultimate act of revenge, the ultimate selfishness, the ultimate in “having the last word.”  The person himself pays with his soul — and all the happiness the future may have held in store for him.  Everyone left behind pays: with grief, guilt, depression; with a lifelong ‘hole’ because someone is missing that should be there.  One of my uncles committed suicide when his girlfriend left him, taking their little girl with her.  His daughter will never again have her father.  His mother, on the eve of celebrating her 80th birthday, was devastated.

Running away always costs.  It’s habit-forming.  If you run away from trouble once, it becomes that much harder to face it the next time.  It’s also harder to face ourselves at the end of the day; we lose self-respect when we know we’ve played the coward.

If we see the battle coming and we stand up against the enemy, God will come in on our side (if we invite Him.)  If we turn tail and run, someone else will have to pay for our desertion.  And we’ll face repeated battles until we finally quit running away.

For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to shew himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward him. Herein thou hast done foolishly: therefore.. thou shalt have wars.  II Chronicles 16:9



  1. I don’t remember that from the history books – what a tragedy. And some heroic stuff too!
    If we trust in the Lord as described in the verse, we can have strength to not run away.


    • Really they had two options: to save themselves or to die in an effort to save others. They had no idea how long before she blew.

      Hindsight is always 20/20, they say; one can only pray for grace to stand in a similar situation. (Maybe it takes years of smaller episodes of self-denial to prepare one for that kind of situation?)


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