World War I hit North American shores on Dec. 6, 1917. It didn’t come in the form of an invading army, or even a naval battle. Instead, it came in the form of an event known as the Halifax Explosion. (This post is a companion piece to Melina Druga’s WWI Trilogy, Angel of Mercy, Those Left Behind and Adjustment Year, available wherever eBooks are sold.)
Halifax played an important role during World War I. It was command centre for the Royal Canadian Navy.
Military and medical corps vessels as well as supply convoys embarked and disembarked from the harbor, which was protected by a garrison and anti-submarine nets. Traffic through the harbor increased dramatically during the war, and so did the city’s population. Many of the new citizenry were military men and transient employees.
In addition, neutral nations’ ships were inspected in Halifax before being permitted to move onto other North American ports.
That Fateful Morning
On the morning of Dec. 6, a ship from neutral Norway, the Imo, was in Halifax for inspection. It was headed to New York City to pick up supplies destined for Belgium. Another vessel, France’s Mont-Blanc, left New York and traveled to Halifax to join a convoy. It was carrying TNT and other explosives, and it was running several hours behind schedule.
Vessels were supposed to move in and out of the harbor port side (left) to port side. The Narrows, the exit to the harbor, necessitated this rule.
That morning, however, the Imo was traveling on the wrong side. Mont-Blanc blew its whistle at the Imo on more than once, but the Imo refused to change its position.
The ships collided, and sparks from the collision started a fire in Mont-Blanc. The crew abandoned ship, and it began drifting toward Pier 6.
Meanwhile, the commotion attracted the attention of city residents who gathered at their windows or near the pier to watch.
At 9.04 a.m., Mont-Blanc exploded with such force it could be felt more than 100 miles away. Several acres of the city were instantly destroyed, while every building for a mile and a half was damaged. The shock wave caused a tsunami.
The explosion was the largest ever experienced at that time.
And what happened to the people who gathered to watch? Hundreds were blinded by broken glass, dozens permanently. Others were impaled or beheaded. Others were vaporized. In the end, nearly 2,000 people died outright, and 9,000 were injured, some fatally.
First responders and hospital personnel were overwhelmed. One morgue alone received 25 wagon loads of bodies. The cities’ hospitals couldn’t handle all the wounded and many were housed in businesses and even private homes.
The military went on high alert, unsure for a few hours if the explosion was the result of a German attack.
By the day’s end, relief had begun arriving from surrounding communities and from Royal Navy and U.S. Navy ships. Relief trains sent supplies.
The day after the explosion, a blizzard hit.
The harbor reopened within days.
Thousands were homeless while thousands more had their homes damaged beyond repair. Damage to the city cost in the millions. Financial aid came from the Canadian and British governments as well as the Massachusetts state government.
Fearing German attack, residents took to the streets in terror.
“By the littered roadsides as they passed, there could be seen the remains of what had once been human beings, now torn and mangled beyond realization of what had occurred,” Canadian Press said.
“Here and there lay the cloth wrapped bodies of children, scarred and twisted by the force of the horrible explosion.”
Scenes from Halifax
“The main damage, however, was done in the north end of the city, known as Richmond,” Canadian Press said, “which was opposite the point of the vessels’ collision.
“Here the damage is so extensive as to be totally beyond description. Street after street is in ruins and flames swept over the district.
“In this section, many of the large buildings are smouldering heaps of ruins, and ordinary frame houses are mere piles of shattered, flattened ruins.”
The following are photographs of the Halifax Explosion.
Updated: 20 October 2020