The Man from Halifax, an Excerpt from The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

Submitted by Seth on October 31st, 2017 at 10:31 AM


John U. Bacon’s latest book, The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism, debuts November 7. The book was described by George Will as “an astonishing episode of horror and heroism,” and by David Maraniss as “absorbing from first page to last.” Bacon will start his book tour at 7 p.m., Tuesday night, November 7, at Michigan’s Rackham Auditorium, where he’ll be introduced by Michigan Radio’s Cynthia Canty. The book is available through Harper-Collins, and will be found on Amazon (pre-order), Barnes & Noble, Indies, Nicola’s, Literati, and elsewhere.

This exclusive excerpt focuses on the book’s central figure, Joseph Ernest Barss. After being wounded in World War I, he returned to Nova Scotia to rehabilitate when a ship blew up in Halifax Harbour. After spending three days helping victims, he was inspired to attend the medical school at the University of Michigan, where he started Michigan’s hockey program. completing one of the most remarkable journeys of any Michigan Man.


Joseph Ernest Barss is one of the most important people in the long, rich history of Michigan athletics. But you wouldn’t have guessed that from his background – and certainly not from his family’s.

Barss Pillar
The story of the founder of Michigan hockey goes through the greatest tragedy in Canadian history

His great-grandfather, Joseph Barss Jr., was the most notorious privateer in Canadian history, capturing, sinking, or burning more than 60 American ships during the War of 1812, making him America’s most wanted man.

Three generations later, Joseph Ernest Barss was born in India in 1892, the son of Baptist missionaries. He grew up in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, just a few miles from Windsor, Nova Scotia, the birthplace of hockey. He attended the hometown Acadia University, which his grandfather helped found, where Ernest starred in football, hockey, baseball, and boxing.

“He was sort of a stocky fella, big thighs, who carried himself very straight,” his son, Dr. Joseph Andrew Barss, told me in 1999. “A tough guy. His ankles were so strong, he didn’t have to lace up his skates.”

After graduating cum laude in 1912 at age 19, Barss moved to Montreal, where he rose to become a district manager for Imperial Oil, earning $1,500 a year – big money for a young man at the time. He seemed to have it all: a great career, money, and fun. But Barss’s letters give the unmistakable sense that he was not fulfilled.

That changed in 1915, World War I’s second year, when one of Barss’s rowing club friends read out loud that the Germans had gassed a famed Canadian unit, the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) killing 461 of the 1,068 men, including many friends of theirs from Montreal. The four men were “filled with indignation,” Barss wrote, and decided to enlist right then and there.

In his early letters back to his parents, Barss was bursting with enthusiasm for the cause, and the role he had trained to play: machine gunner. The reason the PPCLI was in such need of reinforcements, he explained, was because “there are only 53 left out of 1500. So we have some reputation to keep up. Of course, as you have probably noted, I am full of this thing. So are the other fellows.”

[Hit the JUMP for how Halifax became a WWI battleground in a flash, and Canada became a United States friend in a fortnight, and how this all resulted in Michigan starting a hockey program]


Barss’s bravery and equanimity would soon be tested when the prospect of being killed in the trenches shifted from a far-off hypothetical to a cold reality he would face every day. But no one could claim his new life lacked purpose.

As the killing continued for months all around him, however, with no end in sight, his letters revealed growing doubt, fear, and disillusionment. A little more than a year after he volunteered, after seeing countless comrades go down and surviving a few close calls himself, Barss wrote to his parents on May 31, 1916, from Ypres, site of some of the worst carnage the world had ever seen. He told them his unit going “into the line” that night for eight days, which he hoped would be their last trip. “I think we are all heartily sick of the whole show.” But, he said, after this they needn’t worry about what’s next, because “it can’t be any worse.”

On June 2, 1916, a German shell blew up near Barss. The explosion sent him flying, knocking him unconscious and seriously injuring his back and left leg. He spent six months in a body cast in England, then transferred to Halifax in 1917, where the doctors reported Barss suffered complete paralysis “of left foot and up the leg to three inches above the ankle joint.”

Almost a year after Barss had been evacuated from the battle of Mont Sorrel, he still could not extend or flex his left foot or toes, and could walk only with “a marked foot drop,” hardly the stuff of a hockey hero. A question on the form asked the attending physician, “To what extent will injury prevent his earning a full livelihood in the general labor market?” The doctor answered, “30%.” On another form, under “Probable Duration of Incapacity,” a doctor wrote, “Indefinite.”

Almost a year after getting hit, Barss’s shell shock hadn’t abated either, which included “insomnia, nervousness [and] some tremor of his hands.” After being released in 1917, he returned to his parents’ home in Wolfville to continue his self-directed rehabilitation program, which entailed walking all over Wolfville with a cane, trying to sell Victory Loans—and prove the doctors wrong.


Halifax-Mushroom Cloud-MMA

On the morning of Thursday, December 6, 1917, the captain and crew of French munitions ship called Mont-Blanc were eager to get inside Halifax Harbour – and with good reason. Five days earlier a crew of stevedores in Brooklyn, New York, had finished loading her down with an unprecedented amount of high explosives, including TNT: a staggering 6 million pounds, or 13-times the weight of the Statue of Liberty. The touchy cargo was headed to France, where it would fill shells to drop on the Germans.

While Mont-Blanc was anxious to get inside Halifax Harbour, the Norwegian ship Imo was just as eager to go in the opposite direction to New York. There it would load relief supplies intended to alleviate the desperate situation of the civilians in German-occupied Belgium.

The two ships engaged in a very dangerous game of chicken, which ended at 8:46 a.m., when Imo struck the Mont-Blanc’s bow, knocking over barrels of airplane fuel. Fire swept across the decks, sending the Mont-Blanc’s crew scurrying to their lifeboats, while Halifax longshoremen, office workers, and schoolchildren watched the ghost ship slip perfectly into Pier 6 at the base of the city.

At 9:04:35 a.m., Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling 2.5 square miles of Halifax, rendering 25,000 people homeless, wounding 9,000, and killing 2,000 more—all in one-fifteenth of a second, less time than it takes to blink. It was the world’s largest manmade detonation prior to the A-bomb. In 1942 J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team held a conference at California-Berkeley to study Halifax, concluding that the atomic bomb would be only five times more powerful. Their calculations would prove correct.

Halifax-Hillside w_Train-PANS


About an hour after the explosion, which blew out windows fifty miles away, Barss received a call from a Wolfville mentor, Dr. Elliott, who had heard, “Simply that there had been an explosion and part of the city had been wrecked and was in flames,” Barss wrote to his uncle Andrew Townson, who made his fortune building a department store in Rochester, New York, “Of course we thought it greatly exaggerated, but when about half an hour later an urgent call came for doctors and nurses we began to think there must be something in it.”

JE Barss w_Parents
Barss with his parents

There was something to it.

Dr. Elliott was essentially recruiting Barss to return to a war zone—not to fight this time, but to help. Despite Barss’s infirmity and shell-shock symptoms, all of which could be aggravated by this demanding mission, once again Barss didn’t hesitate to answer the call to duty.

If Barss’s outlook had changed dramatically during his first trip to the trenches, slowly turning his optimistic bravado into fatalistic defeatism, this second call would transform his life once again.

When he got off the train in Halifax, he couldn’t believe his eyes. “I saw some terrible scenes of desolation and ruin at the front, but never, even in that old hard-hammered City of Ypres, did I ever see anything so absolutely complete. In that entire area of over three square miles in the immediate vicinity of the explosion there was not one stick or stone standing on another. Every house and building had just crumpled up and the whole was a raging mass of flames.

Although Barss had no medical training beyond the basic first aid all soldiers received, the city was grateful for anyone who could still walk, see, and lend a hand, so he was permitted to perform tasks normally reserved for medical professionals. He threw himself into the frightful work for three days, working on only a few hours of sleep.

“The stench of blood was almost overpowering,” he wrote. “Several of the trained nurses keeled over at the sights. As for me, I had seen so much of that kind of thing that it didn’t bother me at all. I was assigned a trained nurse to help me, and my how we worked; I dressed every kind of wound, set several fractures, and did a number of [surgeries] as well.”

J E Barss -Hospital WW1

Barss as a patient in a convalescence hospital. He wasn’t expected to walk again.

When Barss was relieved at four the next morning, Friday, December 7, he had completed a nonstop fourteen-hour shift. He got a few hours of sleep somewhere, then came back at 8:30 Friday morning for more – and did it all again Saturday. If Barss ever wondered whether medicine might be his calling, it would be hard to construct a more intense introductory course to find out.

That Saturday afternoon the beleaguered town received relief from an unexpected source: the people Boston, who had fought against “British North America” in 1776 and 1812. As late as 1911, the Speaker of the House took to the floor of the U.S. Congress to argue vigorously for the annexation of Canada – and received hearty cheers for it.

Yet it was Boston, not Montreal or Toronto, which sent two trains and two ships loaded with 100 doctors, 300 nurses, and a million dollars’ worth of supplies (about $20 million today) – all without being asked. It was enough to break a 141-year pattern of animosity and aggression, and spark a century of peace between the two neighbors. Boston’s overwhelming generosity even converted the great-grandson of Canada’s greatest privateer.

“You know we have always been a trifle contemptuous of the U.S. on account of their prolonged delay in entering the war,” Barss wrote his uncle. “But never again! They can have anything I’ve got. And I don’t think I feel any differently from anyone down here either.”

But the explosion and its aftermath did something else, too: it changed the course of Barss’s life. When he told his uncle of his newfound desire to become a doctor, Andrew Townson gave him $100 to enroll at the University of Michigan in 1919, back when that was enough to get started.

We don’t know how Barss picked Michigan, but we do know why he decided to become a doctor. Having taken part in both fighting and healing, Barss chose to spend the rest of his life practicing the latter.

Barss knew he would lose his hard-earned progress regaining the ability to walk if he quit pushing himself, so he made himself visit Michigan’s rudimentary skating rink, a building with three sides, to limp his way around the ice. He would skate “until the tears ran down his face,” his mother wrote a friend, but each time it got a little better.

According to the box scores of Michigan’s “informal team,” Barss officiated many of the club’s hockey games in 1922. Perhaps it was his desire to return to a normal lifestyle and have some fun again that motivated him to find time in his already overburdened schedule for such a trivial pursuit. It’s easy to imagine the lightheartedness Barss must have felt as he became reacquainted with the happiness a hockey game could bring. And having gotten a taste, he wanted more.

To get more, however, Michigan needed a varsity ice hockey program—something the club players had asked for and been denied three times over the previous decade. When the Great War broke out, Michigan sponsored only five varsity teams: baseball, football, track, tennis, and basketball.

Barss paid a visit to Michigan’s legendary football coach and athletic director, Fielding Yost, to ask if he could start a varsity hockey team. Yost, a native of West Virginia, didn’t know much about hockey, but he knew a good coach when he saw one. Yost agreed, on one condition: Barss had to become the program’s first coach.

Barss agreed, but that required permission from the medical school, because the professors knew the academic burden of a medical school student was about all anyone could handle. The medical school had already allowed him to skirt the prohibition against medical students getting married, and once again, the school made an exception for Barss, which meant he had to “rush home from classes, eat dinner, have a taxi waiting, go to the rink and coach, return by a little after nine and study for the next day’s classes until midnight,” his wife Helen recalled. Because the rink lacked artificial ice, or a fourth wall, they were at the mercy of the weather. “The tin roof [on the rink] caused him some trouble because we had to live by the weather report and temperature.”

Barss soon built the Michigan hockey team into one of the most popular attractions on campus, one strong enough to inspire Yost to buy the rink, enclose it, and install all-important artificial ice just before the Great Depression made such improvements impossible. These crucial elements helped Michigan hockey survive both the Great Depression and World War II – one of only two “western” programs, along with Minnesota, to do so.

Barss retired after the 1927 season, his fifth, with a 26–21–4 record (.553), two league titles, and a degree from the University of Michigan School of Medicine, which he put to use as the chief of surgery at the Hines Veterans Hospital in Chicago.

The hockey program Barss started has since won an NCAA-record nine national titles. It has also produced a surprising number of doctors, including four from the 1996 and 1998 NCAA title teams. The program’s combination of athletic and academic success is unsurpassed.

It all started with a wounded veteran of the Great War, a young man who was striving to put his life back together by helping others do the same.



October 31st, 2017 at 11:26 AM ^

Interesting fact: The Christmas Tree in Boston Common is donated by Nova Scotia every year in honor of Boston's help in the Halifax explosion as mentioned in the excerpt

Edit: Article about this year's tree just came out:


October 31st, 2017 at 11:21 AM ^

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October 31st, 2017 at 12:34 PM ^

I'll be reading this one as soon as it comes out. And hopefully JUB is hard at work on his next book about the privateer uncle. 60 ships!


October 31st, 2017 at 1:09 PM ^

Surely Dieppe is number two. I would also consider the destruction of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment at the Somme. Although at that point NewFoundland was not part of Canada the regiment’s destruction is one of the most famous in WWI.


December 6th, 2017 at 10:29 PM ^

Just looked it up -- this explosion killed more than twice as many Canadians as died at Dieppe.  As always I've just had trouble finding the number of Newfoundlanders who died at the Somme, but they only had 700-something troops there total, and 900-something Canadians died at Dieppe, so even if you counted Newfoundland as part of Canada then for these purposes, Dieppe was much more disastrous in terms of raw numbers.

(The Royal Newfoundland Regiment loss was crazy because it was such a huge percentage of the troops Newfoundland sent to the war, all gone in one charge.  If I just did the math correctly, something like 0.4% of the total male population of Newfoundland was killed or wounded that day.)