We arrived at Halifax at 10pm the evening prior after a 1.5 hour flight from Deer Lake. The alternative would have been to board a 8 hour ferry from Port aux Basques to Sydney, at a higher ticket price.
Bright and early around 9:30am, we walked from the hotel towards Halifax Public Gardens, formally established in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation that united Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into one dominion.
We reached the Halifax Citadel just in time for the 10am Sentry Change. Though the Citadel is operated by Parcs Canada, interpretation and programming is conducted by the volunteers of the Halifax Citadel Society (HCS).
Being a sentry remain a grueling task – the volunteers stand guard in 1 hour rotations at the entrance to the citadel in rain or burning sun. As a volunteer interpreter explained, it’s a marked improvement though from olden times when real sentries belong to the 78th Scottish Highlanders Regiment would stand guard in 2 hour rotations on 24 hour shifts with 4 hour breaks in between spent locked up in the sentry’s room. As can be imagined being assigned sentry duty was a means of punishment.
The precise movements of the Sentry Change is dictated by verbal commands given by the Private and coordinated so that there were eyes looking at all times outwards toward the harbor.
In many ways Halifax owes its existence to the Citadel. The presence of the large hill overlooking an easy-to-defend harbor led the British military to establish a town there in 1749. Among the first buildings constructed was a wooden guardhouse on the summit of what eventually would be known as Citadel Hill.
In keeping with tradition, a piper walks along the walls of the fort, piping every 15 minutes to help keep the time.
The Noon Gun has continuously fired off into the harbor from the exact same position since 1857. Back then, it was a means for everyone, foremost the merchants and traders arriving into the harbor from around the world, to calibrate and align their timepieces.
We also got to witness a rifle demonstration of an authentic Snider-Enfield rifle from the 1860s. A breech-loading (versus muzzle loading), the Snider-Enfield rifled allowed single rolled cartridges to be loaded and fired in under 30 seconds (versus more than 1 minute). The British Army adopted the design in 1866 as a conversion system for the ubiquitous Pattern 1853 Enfield muzzle-loading rifles, and used it until 1874. Being a conversion, the rifles still came with fitted bayonets, which could be attached to the muzzle and used in close combat.
A note on the 78th Highlanders uniform – the black on the hat would have ostrich feathers, the white feathers from the African vulture. The sporn (Scottish for bag) was used to store personal effects and also helped to keep the kilt from flying up. In an effort to reduce costs, kilts costed more to make than pants, the hosen actually only goes down to mid-calf with the white gaters also hiding the fact that Scottish regiments weren’t supplied boots (another cost adder) but rather wore their own footwear.
Like the Cabot Tower on Signal Hill in St. John’s (read post here), the Halifax Citadel was equipped with a towering signal mast that would alert the townsfolk of incoming ships. The slightly shorter mast was used to communicate with the fortress on Georges Island located at the entrance of the harbor.
2018 being the centennial of the end of WWI, a special exhibit was mounted in the Citadel’s side barracks and moat to allow visitor to gain an immersive experience in trench warfare.
A fun side-fact, the moat of the Citadel was never filled with water. Instead, shrapnel shells would be loaded in place of cannonballs and pointed down into the moats to stop any incoming attackers.
Trenches were built ad hoc using whatever material there was available at the time. Underlying geography also dictated construction – for example, in Belgium where the water levels are high, instead of digging down, trenches were built up using piled sandbags and also aluminium siding.
True to the intent of the exhibit, the trenches zig-zagged their way from start to finish; shovels and extra sandbags were available for anyone who wanted to try their hands at digging. Sounds of fire shots and airplanes played in the background, further adding to the foreboding mood.
In addition, there were reconstructions of a typical first-aid station (upper left), sleeping barracks (upper rigth), officer’s quarters (bottom) and a bathroom nook (not pictured).
I wasn’t brave enough to give the chicken wire beds a try, but someone did don on a Hypo helmet (or British Smoke Hood, the official name). One of the first gas masks to be used during WWI, the absorbent material was soaked in glycerin and sodium thiosulphate, a dechlorinating agent. A soldier could be tried for treason if they rang the gas alarm when there was no gas, as the masks had to resoaked each time they were brought out for use. Having no respiratory valves, to breath in, one’s lungs would force the air through the material. The thick two-plied black leather would allow one push air out through the mouth.
After the experience, I was more than happy to get out of the trenches and back on the road headed to Cape Breton.
To my great surprise, the Otentik I booked at the Cape Breton Highlands National Park Cheticamp campsite not only came with a picnic table and deck chairs, but also a gas heater, lights and mattresses on the inside.
Not bad for “roughing” it in the woods for a couple nights.
Not to be fooled by the daylight outside, it was already near 6pm when we arrived. Starving, we headed out to nearby Le Gabriel Restaurant and Lounge for some local Acadian fare – fish cakes, meat pie and, of course, fresh caught lobster and snow-crab. The meat slid so easily off the shells…yum!
With the finally starting to set, we drove north on the Cape Breton Trail to the beautiful Skyline Trail.
The view was simply magical – just us, the mountain, the sea…
…and the setting sun.
It was so gorgeous that we stayed slightly longer than probably should have.