Humour in Tragedy


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This idea shouldn’t sound incompatible. Shakespeare used this artifice in all his tragedies. Hitchcock always used a comic episode to relieve tension in his films. And honestly who hasn’t laughed out loud at bloopers when some poor sap has gone base over apex?

My story may be details such a situation.

In December 1917 there occurred a disaster in Halifax harbour, Nova Scotia Canada. There was an explosion; at the time the largest, most devastating man-made event in history. Hardly a cue for humour, however as in all dreadful occasions an incident occurred to maybe mitigate the horror.

Halifax was the main assembly and departure point for the WW1 convoys then being sailed from North America to Europe. They carried lifeblood to beleaguered nations engaged in a death struggle. The large harbour could accommodate very many waiting ships before they were formed up into the protective convoy to set sail for Europe.

Unbeknown to others, in the harbour was a French munitions ship the Mont Blanc that carried 3000 tonnes of high explosives. Another ship the Imo a Norwegian ship carrying relief supplies was maneuvering to leave the harbour when it collided with the Mont Blanc. The ships locked together.

As well as all the dangerous cargo below decks the French ship had stowed on deck, drums of highly flammable Benzol.

Some of these containers were punctured in the collision; the contents spewed onto the deck; the grinding of metal as the ships drove into each other caused sparks which ignited the volatile liquid. A fire started. The burning Benzol ran down into the ship. The disaster was imminent.

The French crew wanted out. A fatalistic bunch that knew if their ship was ever torpedoed they need not fear a protracted drowning in the icy waters.

They lowered the lifeboat. The captain bravely said he would go down into the bowels of the ship and open the seacocks to sink the vessel. The crew objected saying it was all too late as the stricken vessel drifted towards the nearshore.

Lifeboats are not built for speed. However with desperate men at the oars, they careened across to the far shore, away from the ship at a speed that would have made oarsmen in racing skiffs jealous. They made the shore, the boat grounded, the men leaped out desperate to breast the hill bordering the harbour waters and achieve shelter in its lee from the coming explosion.

They ran like demented demons, up the gravel beach, and onto a small roadway that skirted the harbour foreshore. When to their horror they saw a young woman pushing her baby in a pram oblivious to the looming catastrophe. They ran to her screaming for her to run with them.

Now, this is where more problems start. Halifax is not in the French-speaking part of Canada. The crew screaming in French and wildly gesticulating to the girl who knew only English caused utter confusion and terror in the girl. She refused to run with them. Then, a decision by one clear thinking crewman – he reached into the pram, picked up the innocent, and ran up the hill, carrying with him the child.

The horrified woman watching some deranged foreigner abscond with her beloved offspring threw caution to the wind and set off in hot pursuit intent on at least murder at the outrage. The rest of the crew seeing the problem being resolved set off after her. The girl ran even faster sure that the crew running behind her were also intent on evil doing.

Finally stopping, exhausted at the far side bottom of the hill the girl caught up with the child – laden seaman. There is no record of what she actually said to the man as she snatched back the bewildered baby. Being that the Frenchman didn’t understand English and the girl on reflection thought it best not to repeat the words they have been lost to history.

Just after 9 AM the Mont Blanc blew up. The girl and the crew were safe but the city was devastated. Heavy parts of the ship were found five miles away.

Not to be outdone Mother Nature also took a mean turn in the horror by visiting Halifax the worst blizzard in living memory on the following day. All the unhoused residents; their wooden homes either destroyed in the explosion or in the accompanying fires that followed suffered terribly.

A consoling footnote to the story is that the citizens of Boston were so moved at the plight of the Halifax residents that they rapidly mounted a relief train and brought succor. To this day, in gratitude, the city of Halifax sends each year a Christmas tree, a gift to the city of Boston.