Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Diary of C.W. Kyle contd.

Today's post begins what will be Kyle's last voyage as steward aboard Troopships. This voyage takes him through the Panama Canal, to Halifax, Nova Scotia and eventually to the UK.  Kyle was evidently very impressed by the Canal, and in Halifax he witnesses scenes of extraordinary destruction ...

1917 November 8th

Signed Articles at the Shipping Office Sydney as First Steward on H.M.T. Demosthenes for Voyage to London.

November 9th

Left Sydney Harbour 4 P.M. bound for England with Cargo of Wool, 750 Soldiers, 16 Nurses and 315 Munition Workers going through Panama Canal.

December 6th

Arrived at Panama Canal 3.20 PM. Passed only one Ship during the whole journey took 26 days to do the distance. 

Thousands of American soldiers were guarding the Canal. They gave us a great reception. 

The Panama Canal is a wonderful piece of Engineering. The following is a concise description of it.

For nearly 400 years the digging of a Canal across the Isthmus of Panama to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans had been the dream of Speculators, Explorers and Engineers.

The Pacific Ocean was discovered in 1513 by a Navigator named Vasco de Balboa who advised the construction of a sea-level Canal. His scheme was dismissed through the influence of the Church who said that if God the Maker of the Universe had intended the two Oceans to be united he would have created a Channel there. In 1698 William Patterson a Scotchman formed a Company to cut a Canal through the Isthmus of Darien.

In November of that year the Pioneers arrived at Darien. Within 12 months through lack of organisation and sickness, Anarchy broke out and the remnant of the Expedition re-embarked for Scotland.

During the next 250 years many plans and schemes were launched to connect the two Oceans. In 1848 Gold was discovered in California, this caused a great volume of business which was carried overland between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans on the Panama Railway, which was opened in 1855. This Railway was controlled by Americans and chartered by the Republic of New Granada now known as Colombia.

In 1869 General Grant, President of the United States, asked Congress for a Commission to consider the construction of a Canal uniting the two Oceans.

In 1878 Lieutenant Bonaparte Wyse was granted a concession by the Republic of Colombia to build a Canal from Colon to Panama. 

In 1878 Comt de Lesseps had finished the Suez Canal which connects the Mediterranean and Red Sea.  Wyse and de Lesseps were bosom friends and Wyse said “There is no one more competent to build the Canal than my friend de Lesseps, who had world-wide fame as the Greatest of the World’s Engineers.

French Financiers came forward and secured control of Wyse’s concessions and de Lesseps was made Engineering Director of the undertaking.  After eight years the Company became bankrupt and de Lesseps broke his heart and it became quite evident that a sea-level canal was quite impossible. Plans were then re-prepared for a Canal with Locks.

In 1894 a new Company was formed and work resumed.

In 1899 Congress created a Canal Commission to examine all Routes and report thereon. This Commission reported on two Routes, one from Colon to Panama. The other across Nicaragua, the latter being the nearer, but more expensive.

The French Company on the strength of the report offered the United States Government all its concessions for Forty Million Dollars. This was in January 1902.  Congress authorised its purchase, this gave the United States Government all the property of the Panama Company and also that of the Panama Railway. The Commission also authorised the purchase of six miles in width of a strip of Country on each side through which the Canal would pass but the Colombia Government blankly refused such a concession.

In November 1903 the State of Panama declared itself independent. Within One Month a treaty was entered into in order to secure a 10 Mile width instead of a six Mile as hitherto.

In 1904 another Commission was appointed for the Construction of the Canal from Colon to Panama. In May of this year work was begun. In June 1906 Congress adopted the plans for An Elevating Lock Canal.

The building of the Canal by Tender was rejected and President Roosevelt placed the work in the hands of Major C.W. Gaethals of the Engineering Corps. Forty-two thousand employees were engaged.

The first seven miles to the Gatun Locks are at sea level, here the Ships are raised by three steps to a height of 85 feet into fresh water called Gatun Lakes formerly the Valley of the Chagres River. For the control of the heavy tropical floods the Gatun Dam was constructed. The Spillway of which permits the flow of 154,000 Cubic feet per second. Light and power is supplied by this water, through an hydro electric plant.

The most wonderful feature of the Canal is its Locks. There are forty-six Lock Gates on the Canal all made of steel plate, some of which weight one million and a half lbs [pounds], the total cost of these gates is 5 billion 3 hundred and 74 million 5 hundred thousand dollars ($5,374,500.00)

Vessels entering from the sea pass into the lower Chamber, the Gates are closed behind the ships by electric power, Two leaves each 65 feet long swing and form a v-shape gate, this turns by Electric Machinery and lets in the water through the floor of the Locks. The Chamber is filled with the water and the ship is lifted accordingly. This process is repeated until the Ship reaches the level of Gatun Lake. All Locks are built in pairs so the danger from accident is nil. 

Again the Locks are built so that any of the five different lengths can be used to suit the different lengths of Ships going through.

The total time for passing the Gatun Locks is 1 1/2 Hours. 

Ships are not allowed through the Locks under the own power or Steam

Electric Locomotives four to each Ship, two on each side, one forward and one astern take them in tow. These Locomotives are run on tracks laid on the Lock Walls, and have powerful gear wheels to keep them from being pulled off the tracks.

All Locks are provided with Chain fenders to prevent the drift of any Ship. When my Troopship the Demosthenes reached Gatun Lakes the barnacles that covered the bottom were thoroughly cleaned off by the action of the fresh water.

After leaving Gatun Lake the vessel steams at full speed for a distance of 24 miles to the entrance of Culebra Cut.

The entire length of the Canal is closed at nightfall. This is during the duration of the war. At other times vessels pass at all hours. The Canal is superbly lighted by Electricity.

The Culebra Cut – which is nine miles long runs right through the Mountains. It was the most difficult to construct. At Gold Hill the highest point of the Mount is 500 feet above sea level. 

At this place most of the Slides which have occurred recently took place.

The Great Gambora Dike was built across the Cut to keep the Gatun Lake out of the Culebra Cut. [during construction]

On October 1st 1913 the first water was let into the Cut and on October 10th 1913 the Gambora Dike was exploded by dynamite through President Wilson simply pressing a button at White House Washington United States.

The passage through the Canal occupies just 10 Hours and 40 minutes. At the Southern end of the Culebra Cut is Pedro Mignet Lock. Ships go through this to Mira-Flores which has an area of 2 square miles and is composed of fresh water. The Mira-Flores Locks are at the lower end of these Lakes similar to those of the Gatun except there are two instead of three steps dropping down there a distance of  65 feet. The Ship is again in Salt Water at the level of the Pacific Ocean where a Channel 50 mile long and 8 mile wide leads to the open sea.

At Panama a huge mountain of Rock was cut into in order to obtain a straight line for the Canal. 

The total cost of the Panama Canal to June 1st 1913 was Two hundred and ninety-five billion five hundred and eighty seven million five hundred and twenty-eight thousand four hundred and eleven dollars. ($295,587, 528,411)  Since then another 90 Million Dollars have been expended.

The loss of life was enormous through Malaria, Cholera, Fever and the bite of a deadly fly. The victim thus bitten would die in agony in a few hours.

It is estimated that for every foot of the Panama Canal one human life was sacrificed.

End of description of Panama Canal.   [this describes the Canal in the reverse order to which Kyle was actually travelling, suggesting he has taken it from a book or other information]

Diary continued next page. 

1917 December 7th

Left Colon for Halifax at 3PM

December 12th

At 9AM passed Land Tuckett Lighthouse. Eight ships were sent to their doom here by German Submarines just 12 months ago.

December 13th

Arrived at Halifax Nova Scotia at 7AM. Went there to pick up convoy of Ships with New Zealand and Canadian Troops. The Awful Halifax Disaster took place just a week ago today. It took place at 8.30 A.M.  Dec 6th 1917 between a Belgian Relief Ship called the Mt Blanc and a Norwegian Ammunition Ship called the St. Imo, the former ship ran clean into the latter and cut her in two whilst at anchor. [Kyle does not have the facts quite straight here, he has transposed the ships' names, and it was a French ammunition ship. From here onwards we will reverse the ships' names as they should be]

This Ammunition Ship had a Cargo of Explosives and consisted of 850 Tons of T.N.T. which is tri nitro tolvene. The most deadly of all explosives, composed of Nitro Glycerine Celluloid and Gun Cotton. In addition to this explosive, the Mt Blanc had 125,000 cases of Benzine.  Immediately the Ship was struck the Benzine ignited and the flames shot up to a great height.

The Richmond Public School – a suburb of Halifax - was situated exactly opposite the Mt Blanc as she was moored in the River St Lawrence. The Head Master of this School gave permission for nearly 1500 Children to go down to the Cunard Liner Wharf and watch the fire, and the School Bell would ring for them to return. They went and were joined by 5 to 6 thousand Adults. Without any warning the flames reached the powder and blew the whole wharf up. Over 1000 children were killed.

The first Ship we passed was the Belgian Relief Ship which came into collision with the Ammunition Ship. 

She was on the Beach wrecked and knocked to pieces. 

The attached Post Card is a picture of her. 

Kyle has labelled the wreck as the Mont Blanc, but Mont Blanc, the ammunition ship,
was completely destroyed during the explosion.
The wrecked ship here is the Imo, the Belgian Relief Ship

The Captain the First and Third Officers who were on the bridge of the Mont Blanc were blown to atoms. One body was discovered a mile away. The only things found belonging to the Ammunition Ship were its Anchor and 4.7 Gun. These were discovered a 1/2 a mile away. Passed Twelve Ships all down Hulks Sterns Masts only visible. Some of these ships were 12,000 Tons tonnage. The report of the explosion was heard 215 Miles away.

Land Tucket Wireless Station was put out of action and this is 185 miles away.

Three Members of the Mt Blanc crew saw Benzine trickling in the Engine Room. They plunged into the River and swam ashore – they took refuge under a tree, all were killed by the concussion. 

Saw 22,000 Houses all wrecked. For 5 miles each side of The River there was not a House left. Streets were levelled to the Ground. There is not a sign of life. The silence of death reigns supreme.

December 19th

One hundred and seventy-two bodies were discovered today. The relief parties are getting them out at the rate of 200 daily.

Captain of Ship made a collection on board for the Distressed £92.12.6 was collected.

A few days after the Disaster a dreadful Blizzard set in – the worse on record.  What the explosion did not do the Snow storm completed.

The people had lit fires in their homes and when the disaster took place many houses were set on Fire and the occupants burnt to death.

A Railway Truck carrying 10 Tons was thrown from one side of the River to the other. I saw this Truck myself.

Moored to the Cunard Liner Wharf was a 12,000 ton British Merchant Man. She was blown completely out of the Water and landed high and dry on the Bank of the River 100 yards away. 

I saw her there. All her Crew some 200 Men were killed only five escaping.

The Suburb that suffered most was Richmond with a Population of 47,000 people. Not a home escaped, whole Streets were levelled to the ground.

The Cunard Liner Wharf opposite to where the collision occurred was blown to atoms. It was never found. 

One thousand people were rendered quite blind.

The Presbyterian Church was turned into a Mortuary and as the Bodies were recovered they were taken there for identification.

The square in front of the Catholic Church was used to make Coffins.

I saw today Dec 20th 80 carpenters making rough deal Coffins at the rate of 300 per day. No trimmings and no painting. 35 were buried today and 70 more are in the Church waiting for identification.

A woman, wife of a Returned Soldier was in the street. A floating piece of debris tore her shoulder from its socket. She was placed in the Naval Dept’s red cross waggon. The driver of this vehicle was one of the Gunners who boarded my Ship the Demosthenes. He told me that the poor woman incessantly cried for her Husband whom she had sent on a business errand. Going about 100 yards the Cart took up a man without any legs, bleeding to death. It was the woman’s Returned Soldier Husband. They kissed each other and died clasped together.

A little dog was howling piteously in the Cellar of an Hotel. 

Relief parties dug in through the footpath into the Cellar. They found the little dog guarding a little Baby Boy of 4 years old. Dog and Child had been there of 5 days in total darkness and both were unharmed.

A Family named Taylor consisting of Mother, Father and four Daughters were sitting at the Breakfast table when the explosion took place. Three of the Daughters were Killed. One escaped unhurt. The Father and Mother were never found.

A British Sailor was rowing across the river, he was blown out of the boat and his dead body was found 200 yards away.

A woman gave birth to a child, she had a fractured skull. The woman who acted as midwife had her left arm blown off, both died that night.

A little girl going to School was carried a hundred yards and landed on her feet unhurt.

Cause of the explosion

We were informed by a Medical Man at Halifax that German Villainy was the cause of the tragedy. It was said the Quarter Master of the Belgian Relief Ship was a pro German and he covenanted with Germans at Halifax to cut the Mt Blanc in two whilst coming out of the Harbour. The price he received was £5000.00 He committed Suicide that night.  [These ideas are mis-informed as you will find if you follow the link above through to the account of the explosion. Another link to a YouTube video of images of Halifax after the disaster, the largest human-made explosion prior to the detonation of the first atomic bombs.]

Friday December 21st  1917

Left Halifax for Liverpool at 1PM. With Cruisers, Destroyer and Troopships 27 all told were in the Convoy. We were preceded by a British Battleship of 47,000 tons.

December 23rd

Dreadful fog hanging over us since we left Halifax.

Wednesday December 26th

Boxing Day. 64 on Board were Masons. I being a [illegible] M and the Senior one was asked to preside at a Gathering of the Brethren held in the Saloon. I declined in favour of a much older Brother whose service was only one year less than mine. We had a splendid time. A Photo was taken of the Gathering.

December 27th

Received a Testimonial and £10.10.00 from the 23 Munition Workers as a token of appreciation of my work as their First Steward from Sydney to England. The following is a copy of it – [Kyle transposes it into his diary. But the testimonial is with the diary so we have scanned it]

December 29th

At the request of the Masonic Brethren on Board I gave a Lecture to 600 of an audience entitled “Lands I have been. People I have met and sights I have seen during four years on land and sea with Australian Troops.” A Collection was taken up on Board for the Edith Cavell Memorial Home Summerhill Sydney. Major Robbins OC was Chairman. The collection amounted to £5.00

December 30th

Sunday. Six Destroyers met us early this morning in the British Channel off Liverpool. The Pilot Boat with 23 Pilots on Board came out to meet us.  She was blown up by a German Sub-marine and 21 Pilots were killed – Captain decided to run for Glasgow. [The only record we can find of a Pilot Ship being destroyed was early in November when a Pilot Ship struck a mine and many of the Pilots on board were killed]

December 31st

Monday. Sighted land Coast of Ireland at 6PM arrived at Glasgow Scotland after a voyage of 52 days. No Deaths no Sickness and no Complaints.

Do read next week's post ... where Kyle's diary takes an astonishing twist

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