A Morning Exploring the Halifax Citadel

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A reenactment soldier stands guard at The Citadel gates, no doubt sweating profusely in the heavy felt period uniform he must wear.

The day is hot and bright and Halifax is alive with morning light as I’m walking the inclined downtown streets: Prince and Argyle, Sackville and Grafton; heading for the Citadel. It sits above the city with grassy hillsides, stonewalls and black cannons. An ancient bastion of defense built in a time when England and France were fighting for dominance over the realm of what would one day be called Canada.

As I surmount the lush hillside and enter the stone archway of the front gate I think of my grandfather. He did some of his WW2 training here. He was in the RAF 42nd Division bombers and survived an astounding 90 missions firebombing Berlin and the annihilating the Rhineland, (the average lifespan of a bomber crew was 13 missions). Am I stepping in the same place he once stepped? I wonder. Where did he sleep? Did he perform drills over there?

The Halifax Citadel was first established in 1749. Over the years it fell into disrepair and was rebuilt four times. The current incarnation of the Citadel was named Fort George after King George who was determined to build a permanent military base in Halifax to defend against the French. But not once, in all of its storied history, have any of the four versions of the Citadel been attacked. The soil here has never tasted blood, and yet it was instrumental in the defense of the city.

The Bay of Halifax had many other gun batteries at various strategic locations along the way, so any seafaring vessel attacking the Port or heading inland would be blown to bits before ever getting close to the city. The Citadel stands high atop a steep hill with an outer wall containing ‘ravelins;’ passages throughout the wall with narrow slits for gunners to shoot through. In these dark chambers the soldiers can snipe their enemies while being nearly impossible for the attackers to hit. There is also a very wide ditch between the outer wall and the fort, so enemy troops who came over the wall would be trapped and, as if that wasn’t enough, the hill also contained hidden packs of explosives which could be detonated at will.

Today, the Halifax Citadel doesn’t defend the city from hostile naval fleets bent on conquering Nova Scotia for the French Empire. The City of Halifax decommissioned the fort in 1956. Now it’s a tremendously popular tourist attraction and an enduring symbol of the deep military history present in Halifax. The Halifax Citadel Regimental Society is responsible for maintaining the grounds and dressing in the period uniforms of the 78th Regimental Highlanders to educate guests, fire muskets, and demonstrate a cannon blast every day at noon. They are mostly university students, so the Citadel also provides a lot of quality student jobs.

In the stone tunnel entrance to the complex I go through a door on my left and talk to a soldier on duty. He’s no more than 21 years old, blonde with sunburnt cheeks. He tells me about military life in the 1800s, and I ask about the various pouches around his belt. He gladly explains them to me: one small square white leather pouch for gun powder, and two more for bullets. He turns and shows me his backpack which looks like a little black box with a round piece about the size of a small pot on top.  He tells me it contains his cooking gear, food, extra clothes, and various items related to hygiene and survival.

The room has a low, concave ceiling and contains a desk and a lunch table that soldiers once used. Against the walls there are two sets of inclined wooden surfaces which can be folded up. These are daybeds for the soldiers to catch a few Zs whenever they had a break. These so-called beds do not look comfortable. The soldiers weren’t allowed using blankets or pillows on the beds to prevent the spread of lice and other parasites. Medicine was very primitive back then, so preventative measures like these where very important.20150707_104416

On the lunch table I find a tattered deck of playing cards next to a checkers board and an old steel kettle with some corroded metal cups. I can easily imagine two officers sitting and talking about the war, or their darlings, or the ones they miss back home as I survey these ancient games.

In an adjoining room I find two dank jail cells with black iron bed frames and coat hooks. A covered bucket sits on the floor barely visible in the shadows. Presumably, the prisoners would defecate in these receptacles. When the heavy doors clang shut, the only source of light and air into these twin chambers of boredom and filth is a small hole carved through the wall which splits like a fork to draw air into both cells through one funnel.

Back in the main room I resume talking to the soldier. “George Washington sent a spy here once, and he was an incredibly thorough spy,” he says. “He took very meticulous notes about everything having to do with the Citadel; how many cannons there are, how many troops, how much gunpowder there is. He even measured the depth of the bay,” he nods to some of the other tourists in the room.

“He pretended to be a fisherman and dropped a line down to the bottom and recorded how deep it was at various points,” he went on. “When the spy went back to report to Washington he told him, ‘Halifax is crazy. Don’t attack there. Go for Quebec instead.’” We all chuckle at this and I leave the room with a glowing send-off from the young soldier who told me so much about this place.

20150707_104858For three hours I explore the complex. In the Commanders Room I find a desk with an inkwell, two calligraphy pens, a wax seal kit, and a sheet of paper to write on. I take a pen and it weighs almost nothing. I dip its sharp metal point into the ink to attempt writing my name and the soldier in this room tells me I have to hold it at the proper angle. It takes a few tries to get it right, so I experiment with different approaches. Mostly the tip skitters and splatters ink, and the page already bears many slapdash attempts and writing with this archaic instrument. I turn the pen inward slightly and apply light pressure as I write all five letters of my name in cursive script. It turns out legible, but erratic like the frantic scrawling of a madman.

Next I enter the Quartermaster’s Room which is a store house for supplies and materials. Every day soldiers would report to this room and receive their pay which was just 18 cents a day during the time of the 78th Regimental Highlanders. As hard as it is to believe, that was enough money to live back then although the soldiers were anything but rich. Many of them were uneducated and couldn’t read or write, so while they served King and Country they also had to go to school.

The Citadel contains a single classroom that the soldiers and their children attended together. Sometimes the children knew more than the soldiers, so the classes contained people of all ages. They would write on the slate chalkboards that are now on display and free to use. I take one of the boards and its writing utensil; a small iron spike much like nail; and write on the iPad-sized board “Slate chalkboard” then set it down. Penmanship was a treasured art back then and it shows in the numerous writing books displaying elegant cursive script in words and phrases that the students had to master.

20150707_110752The schoolteacher stands by the desk rows in a pink floral dress and hair tied back. She’s glad to show me when I ask her how the old-fashioned projector machine on the table in front of her works. The device is shaped like a locomotive, and she opens a compartment in the side to pop in a slide. She turns a few switches and the machine comes to life shining a faded picture of a city street on the screen.

“The teacher would tell the class stories to go along with the pictures,” she tells me. “They would usually do four or five pictures in a show and teach them about history or geography and things like that.”

Out in the sun I notice someone emerge from a passageway in the fort wall so I investigate and find a tunnel. I’m careful to watch my footing on the uneven and broken stone steps built long ago and emerge in the ditch between the fort and outer wall. It’s very wide and level with pleasant green grasses stretching far and I notice the many gun slits cut into the outer wall at intervals.

As you can see, it’s very dark inside the ravelins

The door to one of the ravelins in the outer wall is open and I walk inside. It looks like an endless hallway with the same window and stone over and over again; dark, cold spaces with small shafts of sunlight reaching through the slits. The earthen ground is well-trodden as I speedwalk window, stone, window, stone Where is the end? I imagine soldiers sitting here with their guns ready for the attack which never comes. I come around a corner and keep going until finding another door to the outside world, back to the ditch on the western side of the fort.20150707_105925

In brilliant sunlight I take in the span of the ditch and imagine an enemy army storming the hill and surmounting the wall to fall down the steep drop over the hill and into this trap. The fall is far enough to maybe break a leg or an ankle and there is nowhere to run so they’re cut down like chaff by the ravelin shooters—but then I remember there never was a battle; no one has ever died here.

I return to the main compound through another tunnel passage and in the courtyard I pass an English-speaking tour group where everyone is wearing sunglasses and hats against the blazing sun. Then I come to a little stone house nestled in a little alcove out of the way from prying eyes. The walls of this building are rust stained indicating the stones contain iron, and when I walk inside I see why it was made that way. It’s one of the Citadel’s two gunpowder magazines, and when I enter an audio presentation is playing through a loudspeaker as a couple leaves through the other door. Gunpowder barrels are stacked in rows on either side, each one labelled, sealed, and strapped with copper bands. There’s a mannequin dressed in the soldier’s uniform sitting on a chair among the barrels and I look into his unliving eyes as the recording plays. “One spark and the whole place could blow sky high,” he says in a British accent.

20150707_111625I leave the magazine, walk around the courtyard, and go up a ramp to the upper level which encircles the entire courtyard. There are two dungeons in The Citadel and the mossy, overgrown staircases leading down to them are found on this upper level. When I come down the stairs on the west side I notice water seeping through the stones and a significant temperature drop.

Inside the dungeon, the air’s thick and cold even though it’s 27C outside. It has two large rooms with low ceilings and there are cannons, oddly enough, in both of them. Long heavy ropes are strewn around one of the cannons, and there’s also a long wooden pole which looked to be the packer lying on the floor. The second room has six beds, or rather the metal frames of six beds, some folded over. Moisture collects everywhere and on everything and very little sunlight creeps in through the tiny windows. It’s a miserable place to be so I don’t stay long. The dank air begins weighing on me and I go back upstairs.20150707_111808

I walk along the northern edge with a panorama view of the entire yard when I notice people gathering around one of the soldiers. They all form a line several feet behind him as the soldier faces the stone wall and begins loading his long barrelled musket. A hush falls over the audience as he shouts, cocks the hammer, takes aim and fires with routine precision: a thunderous cloud of smoke that fires a shot echoing across the Haligonian sky. Everyone applauds and few people laugh, others hoot. The display is well appreciated.20150707_112257

All around the fort there are old cannons, disarmed and put on display. Cannons are a
major part of Halifax’s history and the Citadel is one of the best places to see them. The weapons are measured by the diameter of the cannonball which they fire, and in this compound you find cannons in varying sizes from the standard size you would expect to see on a battlefield to enormous tree trunk sized ones. There are some cannons still held on the steel platforms which they were installed on. The gun platform rotates on a pair of semi circular rails embedded into the concrete so the soldiers can adjust the angle they wish to fire on.

The sun is reaching its apex now and the time to fire the cannon draws near. There is already a thick crowd gathering around where the demonstration takes place. A five-man gun crew in neat black uniforms with red collars and gold buttons, and pillbox hats with gold bands around the forehead are manning one of the smallest cannons in the citadel. Another Highlands soldier in traditional kilt and furry codpiece steps forward and orates to the crowd.

“Pretty much ever since the city was founded in 1749, ever since there has been some sort of fort on this hill, they have always fired a cannon at lunchtime.” He adds, “because that’s the most important meal of the day.” A few people laugh at his witty quip and he goes on while behind him the five man crew begins shifting the cannon into place and aiming it.

20150707_114237First they adjust the angle of the cannon by removing a wooden wedge from underneath the back end and pulling in or out another wooden wedge beneath it. The cannon is so heavy that it takes two men with wooden poles to lift it up with leverage power for the few seconds that it takes the aimer to find the right alignment. The aimer barks an order and the men lower the cannon, remove their poles, and precisely lay them on the ground.

“Clear the vent!” he shouts and the number four gunman runs to the end of the cannon and unties a length of rope which is holding an angled piece of metal on top of the fuse hole. After folding the rope in his hand, he pulls something that looks like a car’s dipstick from somewhere in the cannon and drives it into the hole clearing any debris that may be there.

“Search the gun!” the number five gunman shouts and number four picks up a long wooden pole with a rounded end from the ground, holding it at a perfect 90 degree angle and turning with regimental efficiency back to the cannon where he hands it to the gunman standing at the mouth of the gun who then lowers it, straightens, and drives into the chamber back and forth clearing what debris might be there. Job done, he hands it back to number four who returns it to the same place on the ground, holding it 90 degrees again and slowly, slowly lowering it down and laying it along the grass bank.

The five gunmen all stand in position; one at the end of the cannon and two on either side. Here they stand and wait for the 5 minute mark. When the time comes they take a 1-pound charge of black powder and load it into the gun using a long staff called a rammer to pack it down into the back of the cannon. Number four then takes a priming iron and rams it down the fuse hole to loosen up the black power below. The team all return to their places and the leader calls out another order. All five gunmen grab wooden poles which are square in end three feet and move the cannon forward on its wheels by using the poles for leverage.

The aimer shouts, “Halt!” and they all stop. Next they trail the gun, and this involves more leverage on both sides of the gun. The soldiers use their poles to adjust the cannon right or left on order. “Right!—Left!—Aim!—Halt!—Ready!”

They lay down their poles and the number five gunner, who stands at the back of the cannon on the aimer’s left, removes something from his pocket which appears to be a length of rope about three feet long. It is actually no rope at all, but a ‘friction tube’ and it’s what they use to light the cannon. It’s a brass tube filled with gunpowder and small loop that the user can pull on when ready. He inserts the end of the tube into the fuse vent, and when the moment comes he simply pulls on the loop and creates enough friction to ignite the small amount of black power in the tube, sending sparks down into the vent, and igniting the charge in the gun.

Number five stands at attention ready to insert the tube when the order comes, and all his soldier brothers in their positions, but there are still a few minutes until high noon so they wait. They wait and wait for what feels like a fortnight frozen in their positions and baking in the strengthening sunlight of the day. We are all quiet and pensive as we wait with them.

“30 seconds!” one of the gunmen calls out and a light murmur passes through the crowd. Number five unravels the friction tube and inserts the end into the fuse vent, stands aside holding it up like a detonation switch. Time passes.

“Signal gun ready, Sergeant Major,” one of the gunmen says.

Somewhere in the distance the hum of bagpipes wails through the silence, growing louder and clearer as the final seconds tick down.

“Timer over run!”


Number five pulls the lanyard and a resounding blast resonates through the city streets and skyscrapers, echoes off the ceiling of heaven and the floor of hell, hits us like an electric shock and sends the cannon reeling backward in a cloud of smoke. Everyone applauds and my ears ring like church bells just from that one blast, and it wasn’t even a very big one. Immediately I imagine seasoned veterans going deaf from being around protracted gun battles with cannons even larger and louder this one firing constantly. This one is just a little guy as far as cannons go, and I can’t image what one of the mammoth-sized 18-inch guns would sound like.

20150707_120236Everyone wants to get their picture taken with the gun crew and I, standing at the front, edge my way in and beat the crowds to get in first. After this I spend a little more time wandering the grounds and exploring the war museums which feature weaponry, uniforms, and supplies from bygone eras. I think about my grandfather again, especially in the WW2 exhibits. I don’t know if I stepped in the places where he stepped, but in this place I can feel a little closer to him even though he passed nine years ago. He played a role in history that I could never play, and I could never come to the Citadel for the same reason as he, but here I am and I will never forget it.

The day is evermore hot and bright when I leave. When I reach the gates I see the same blonde soldier who I spoke to at the start of my trip. “Well that was quite a visit!” he beamed. And it was indeed. All I can do is thank him and shake his hand as I leave that compound eager to see what else Halifax has to offer.


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