New book by Joel Zemel for September 2017

Title: Betrayal of Trust, Commander Wyatt and the Halifax Explosion

Author: Joel Zemel
Subject: History (non-fiction)
Category: Biography
Format: Soft cover, 6" x 9", 192 pages (over 100 photographs)
Publisher: New World Publishing
Publishing Date: 16 September 2017
Book Price: 19.95


Before the Halifax Explosion, F. Evan Wyatt was a recently-married officer with a promising career in the Royal Canadian Navy. He also enjoyed popularity among those in the city's elite society. But little else is known about the only man indicted for allegedly causing the disaster.

The French munitions ship, SS Mont-Blanc, and the Norwegian freighter, SS Imo, collided in Halifax Harbour on the morning of 6 December 1917. The resultant explosion killed nearly 2,000 people, caused 9,000 thousand injuries and left many more homeless and without shelter. Property losses were in the millions of dollars. In the aftermath of the blast, an inquiry was set up to determine the cause of the collision between the two ships in the harbour. However, the proceedings quickly devolved into a search for scapegoats on whom to lay blame for the explosion.

The captain and pilot of the French vessel were arrested along with the Royal Canadian Navy's chief examination officer (CXO), Commander F. Evan Wyatt (ret. R.N.R). Each man faced a charge of manslaughter. Charges of criminal negligence were added at a subsequent preliminary hearing. The captain and pilot were soon released on a writ of habeas corpus, but Commander Wyatt was indicted by a grand jury and put on trial. Although duly acquitted, his personal reputation and professional career in Canada were ruined.

Betrayal of Trust delves into the life and times of F. Evan Wyatt, the circumstances leading up to his being scapegoated, and the failure of the Department of the Naval Service of Canada to protect one of its own.

"If I had known the fascinating and poignant tale of Commander Wyatt's personal life, as related by Joel Zemel, I doubt that the novelist in me could have resisted his compelling story. It gives to the factual literature of the Halifax Explosion, an unusually intimate personal dimension, worthy of a novel."

- Robert MacNeil, author of the novel Burden of Desire

Excerpt 1 (pp. 27-28):

"It is evident that Evan Wyatt had desperately wanted out of his marriage to Madeline for years and finally, it was done. Under the High Court ruling, maintenance payments were set at the rate of 10. This was later raised to 12 to cover arrears, and was to be paid on the first day of each calendar month (In 1917, this amount had the same buying power as $1,168.03 USD in 2017). Except for the Decree Nisi and the Decree Absolute (Final Decree), the rest of the process was mere formality. The commander was now free and clear to become engaged to Dorothy Brookfield. The fact that Wyatt had already been married did not seem to matter much to her family and in a few months, he would officially become a divorcé. Yet from an onlooker's perspective, Evan Wyatt's life and career seem to have not gone as initially planned. To have been at sea for over twenty years, and in possession of vast experience as a merchant mariner, world traveller and scholar, his professional goals seem to have diminished from those of his earlier days. For someone with a stellar education and obvious qualifications, his request to Admiral Kingsmill for any position after the cessation of hostilities did not appear to come from someone aspiring to reach great heights. Considering Wyatt's privileged background within the British upper-middle class and his penchant for gravitating towards social aristocrats, this dichotomy of stability over ability is somewhat difficult to comprehend. Even so, with the matter of his divorce over and the terms of alimony established, it is not unreasonable to assume his hope was to leave the turbulence of the past few months far behind, and that he thought it best to simply serve out his tenure in Halifax in the best way possible. In the meantime, he would consider all available options while planning for the future. After all, his relationship with Dorothy Brookfield had the potential of achieving long term success and his position as the chief examining officer in charge of the port and anti-submarine defences came with a certain level of prestige. As well, at age 39, he was still relatively young."

Excerpt 2 (p. 55):

"On that unforeseeable December morning, untold numbers of paths stretching from France, the Netherlands and many other parts of the world had converged at a fine point in the upper Halifax Harbour amidst a city full of unsuspecting and unguarded people. A catastrophic event the likes of which had never been seen before - one that would defy even the most vivid of imaginations - was about to unfold. At 9:04:35 a.m., just nineteen and a half minutes after the collision between Mont-Blanc and Imo, the entity that was the French vessel completely disintegrated amidst an enormous, omnidirectional explosion of energy, light and sound - a 2.9 kiloton chemical paroxysm, that in one-fiftieth of a second, flattened almost everything within a half mile radius. After the initial blast, the resultant charcoal grey monster cloud continued to grow - rising high above the harbour; its huge, column saturated with a full spectrum of fiery incandescence. It appeared equally a thing of indescribable beauty and a quietus of unimaginable destruction, suffering and death. A subsequent tsunami with waves reaching eighteen meters in height added to the mayhem, dragging animals and people - living and dead, from the shorelines of both sides of the harbour out into the churning and violent stream. Light and heavy debris picked up during the maelstrom - including vestiges of the late Mont-Blanc - began to rain down onto the damaged city from the sluggish, blackened fog that loomed over Richmond. In the immediate wake, many helpless survivors lay trapped beneath the rubble. Collapsed and broken buildings were quickly engulfed by fires resulting from toppled kitchen stoves and broken gas lines. Some helpless firefighters were reduced to tears as their water hoses ran dry leaving them helpless - unable to rescue distraught victims caught inside their burning homes. The massive detonation caused the instantaneous deaths of 1600 people and incalculable injuries. It damaged or destroyed most of the Richmond District - homes, churches, schools, factories, railway cars, piers, rails, and ships - and effectively shut down nearly all communication with the outside world. More misery was to come that evening by way of an intense blizzard. And by the following morning, the storm had left almost a foot and a half of snow on the ground, making the already grim task of search, rescue, and retrieval even more difficult."

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There is an editorial mistake in the book at the bottom of page 68 (Chapter Four). The last four words are missing. The sentence should read as follows:

"Any punishment of Mont-Blanc personnel, with the exception of the Canadian pilot, would ultimately be imposed by the government of France."

To download a PDF of page 68 for printout, please click here.

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New World Publishing:

Betrayal of Trust can be obtained from NWP through its website. The book will also be available in selected bookstores throughout Atlantic Canada at Bookmark and Chapters/Indigo, and online at, and 49th Shelf.

In HRM, Betrayal of Trust is available at Carrefour Atlantic, Historic Properties.
Map Location

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My John Lyman Book Award and IPPY Bronze Medal


Joel Zemel is a long-time musician/filmmaker turned author/historian and resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is available for lectures on his book and music (jazz). He will also accept private or corporate research projects.

See the List of Professional Researchers on the HRM Archives website.

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