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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Remembering Able Seamen James Irvine & Samuel Gordon Breen—Accidentally Killed December 6, 1917

James Irvine Breen was the born at Spanish Ship Bay, Guysborough County on December 10, 1893, the fourth of Mary Jane (Spears) and William Henry Breen’s seven children and the couple’s third son. A fourth son, Samuel Gordon, joined the family on September 10, 1896. William earned a living at sea and at least three of his sons followed his example. Creighton, the second-oldest, James and Gordon, the youngest, all enlisted with the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve (RNCVR) during the First World War. James led the way, enlisting with the RNCVR at Halifax on January 28, 1916. Gordon joined on July 16, 1917, while Creighton enlisted in May 1918.

Able Seaman James Irvine Breen
Able Seaman Samuel Gordon Breen
James and Gordon served out of Halifax aboard HMCS Musquash, a privately owned vessel variously described as a tugboat and minesweeper. As the Canadian Department of Naval Services chartered the ship, its owners hired and paid the crew, an arrangement that placed the men in a different category—Class 2A, “crew of hired tugs”—than a majority of other RNCVR volunteers.

The Breen brothers worked below decks as “stokers,” fuelling the steam engine with coal and assisting with boiler maintenance and repair. It was hot, dusty work in an enclosed space that placed the men in great danger, should the vessel strike a mine or be targeted by a torpedo. Unfortunately, no details of the Musquash’s service are available. The ship first appears in historical records on the morning of December 6, 1917, when it was moored at Pier 8, near the dry dock wharf in Halifax Harbour.

At 8:45 a.m. that morning, the French cargo ship Mont Blanc, laden with benzol, the high explosive picric acid, TNT and gun cotton, collided with the Norwegian freighter Imo as the Mont Blanc made its way into port. Damaged and afire, the Mont Blanc drifted toward the Halifax shoreline as its crew quickly abandoned ship. At precisely 9:04 a.m., its cargo exploded, devastating the nearby Acadia Sugar Factory and the adjacent dry dock where the Musquash lay at anchor. The blast’s impact significant damaged the vessel, setting it adrift and causing an onboard fire.

As the Musquash drifted into the harbour, the presence of ammunition aboard raised fears of a second explosion. After HMS Highflyer, a Royal Navy ship, brought the vessel alongside, two of its crew bravely boarded the burning Musquash, threw its ammunition crates into the water, and opened the galley doors to allow a fireboat to extinguish the flames below deck. Tragically, nothing could be done to save the crew. Able Seamen Irvin and Gordon Breen perished during the incident, the coroner later attributing their deaths to “shock due to injuries in the explosion.”

James’ remains were transported to Liscomb, where he was laid to rest in St. Luke’s Cemetery. For unknown reasons—perhaps difficulty in identifying his remains—Gordon was buried in Section Q, St. John’s Cemetery, Fairview, alongside other sailors killed in the explosion. Sadly, little over one year later, their father, William, passed away, leaving their mother, Mary Jane, to pursue the issue of appropriate headstones and maintenance of their final resting places.

The unusual nature of their RNCVR assignment may explain the difficulty Mary Jane faced in obtaining Imperial War Graves Commission headstones for the graves. Neither was paid from naval funds, nor had they been formally “called out” for “active service”—they worked aboard a privately owned vessel that was chartered by the Department of Naval Services, not “commissioned” into service. Mary Ann’s persistence, however, eventually resulted in the appropriate markers for both graves. Military authorities also issued Memorial Plaques and Scrolls bearing their names to the brothers’ widowed mother.
Able Seaman James Irvine Breen's headstone, St. Luke's Cemetery, Liscomb, NS
Able Seaman Samuel Gordon Breen's headstone, Fairview Cemetery, Halifax, NS
Bantry Publishing’s “First World War Honour Roll of Guysborough County, Volume I: 1915 - 1917” contains a detailed summary of the Breen brothers’ story, along with profiles of 71 other Guysborough County military personnel who died in service during the war’s first three years.

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