Horton Journal of Canadian History ~ Papers
The Halifax Explosion
by Anna Kennie
"When Robert Oppenheimer, head of the U.S Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb, wanted to visualize what destructive powers would be unleashed by his monstrous new weapon, he studied the devastation of the Halifax explosion." (Beltrame, p.2)
The Halifax explosion was believed to be the greatest man-made explosion in history, until Oppenheimers atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. "The moment in time disrupted lives, transformed cities and changed the world... people had never seen anything like it." (Halifax Herald, p.1) The collision of Mont Blanc and Imo killed more than 1,600 people and injured 9,000. Six hundred people suffered eye injuries, while more than half of those lost at least one eye and 38 people were totally blinded. The disturbing memories drove many survivors insane. One Halifax doctor, horrified by the disaster, hung himself.
Halifax was first founded as a result of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, the oldest British settlement in what is now the Dominion of Canada. The Dockyard of Halifax was established in the midst of the Seven Years War. During World War One, Halifax was a major supply line for the trenches; in people, horses, supplies and munitions. The Great War had brought prosperity to Halifax. The harbour handled over 17 million tonnes of shipping. Many convoys assembled in the Bedford Basin, carrying supplies of men and materials to Europe. When disaster struck, "A son of the Lieutenant Governor, Lieutenant Eric Grant, on leave from France, said the sights were worse than anything he had seen in the trenches". ("The Halifax Explosion").
On the morning of December 6, 1917, the early risers were hard at work. With only three weeks until Christmas, businesses were booming and the stores were getting stocked up with supplies. It was a "bright morning with a chill in the air. The weather forecast testified to this: fair, frozen ground, light northwest wind, no precipitation, temperature 39.2 maximum and 16.8 min."
A Norwegian ship with "BELGIAN RELIEF" written on the side, known as the Imo, 129m long by 13m wide with a crew of 39, captain Haakon From, was leaving the Bedford Basin where it had docked the night before, heading out to New York to pick up relief supplies just after 8:00am. It was hugging the Dartmouth coast as larger ships were crowding it. The Mont Blanc, 99m long by 12m wide, with a crew of 41 and captain Aime Le Medec, was entering the harbour to join convoy at 7:30am when the gate opened. The Mont Blanc had left New York four days earlier picking up a cargo of 2335 tonnes of picric acid, 203 tonnes of TNT, 10 tonnes of gun cotton and 35 tonnes of a new type pf gasoline called benzol. (Kitz, p.2) For some unknown reason, it was cutting across the center of the channel heading straight for the Imo. Mont Blanc whistled a warning to Imo, letting it know it was coming straight towards it. Imo replied but kept sailing. Mont Blanc shut off its engines and signaled again. Once again Imo replied two blasts. Mont Blanc headed left, as there was no other choice. Imo blasted three signals, meaning it was reversing its engines. The two ships touched, thinking it was just a little bump, but within seconds there was black rising from the front of Imo, leading captains to believe it was a hard smack! Fire bells were ringing and people rushed to their doors and windows to see what was going on. There was complete silence, "as if the whole world stopped"(Monnon, p.48), and a black cloud filled the city. Just minutes before the explosion Vincent Coleman, a telegraph operator, sacrificed his life to telegraph a warning. He had watched the incident from his office, and fearing an explosion sent the following message to Truro. "A munition ship is on fire and is heading for Pier 8. Good-bye." (Monnon, p.41) By doing this, Coleman sacrificed his life and saved the 700 on the train heading towards Halifax.
Mont Blancs captain yelled "abandon ship!" just seconds after the hit at about 8:45am.
(Beltrame, p.3) A few minutes after 9:00am, the Mont Blanc blew up. Fragments flew everywhere. The shock was felt 300km away. A winding column of smoke and burnt-out gases rose for three miles into the sky above the North End. "It hung there for many minutes, turning from black to grey and then to cotton-wool white, and it looked for all the world like some enormous, mutated mushroom." (Bird, p.65) After the explosion came a gigantic tidal wave. Many thought the Germans fired on the city. After the bang people ran around screaming "The Germans are here!" (Beltrame, p.2) "It was almost as if Fate, unconvinced that the exploding chemicals in the hold of the Mont Blanc had struck a death blow to Halifax was now calling upon nature to administer the coup de grace". (Bird, 1995, page 108).
About two and a half square miles was destroyed. A piece of Mont Blancs anchor, weighing a half-ton, landed over two miles away. Around noon word was spread that it was safe to go home, but for 6,000 people, there was no home to go to. For 25,000 others, home was shelters; with no windows, roofs and little food and warmth. Within thirty minutes of the explosion, organized search and rescue teams were amongst the wreckage, finding the injured and the dead. The following day a Relief Committee had been set up. The task was to provide aid for the injured, shelter for the homeless and food for the hungry. Some carried one while others moved in with distant relatives. Some never even returned to school or work. A survivor states "one of the sights I shall never forget was that of a mother with two children. She was holding them so tightly that even in death we couldnt part them. They were buried like that." (Monnon, p.63)
The question asked by many, was who was to blame? Many say it was "sabotage" and "the Huns were behind it", while others say it was just "an accident". (Monnon, p.40) However, after the collision, it was determined that both ships could have avoided the crash by recognizing the danger earlier, but once they were in the situation, there seemed to be no turning back. The day after, in the Halifax Herald, the blame was placed on Kaiser because he had started the war. Many, if not all, Germans in Halifax were arrested, but soon released. There was only one course open that might prevent an explosion. The Mont Blanc could have taken full speed ahead in an attempt to force enough water through the hole made by the Imo to extinguish the fire in No.1 hold. (Bird, p.46) One might say the Mont Blanc was responsible for the disaster for it had been flying the French tricolor but no red flag, which is the International symbol for "I have explosives on board" (Monnon, p.46 ) William Hayes, pilot of the Imo, died in the explosion while pilot Francis MacKay of the Mont Blanc survived and was charged with man slaughter, specifically with killing Hayes. A hearing was taken to the Privy Council in London and both ships were found equally guilty.
News of the disaster spread quickly and funds came from around the world, as far away as New Zealand. Most of the rescue relief came from Massachusetts. They sent the most comprehensive relief aid from Boston. Not only medical staff and supplies, but food, clothing, transport, and even glass and glaziers. In return, Halifax sends a giant Christmas tree to Boston to show that their help will always be remembered.
The explosion marked the beginning of the Red Cross as aid was sent by the American Red Cross. The people and the government of the United States, in dispatching to Halifax train and boat loads of supplies. "Their neighborly kindness will never be forgotten" (Metson, p.126)
The Halifax explosion had a monstrous impact that devastated many Maritimers. The countless occupied cemeteries in Halifax, Nova Scotia, are a constant reminder of the destruction and terrible loss sorely felt by our neighbors.
Bird, Michael The Town That Died. London, 1962
Beltrame, Julian The Halifax Explosion. Ottawa, November 28, 1987
"Halifax Wrecked" December 17, 1917
Kitz, Janet "The Big Bang"
Metson, Graham The Halifax Explosion December 6, 1917. Canada, 1978
Monnon, Mary Ann Miracles and Mysteries. Hantsport Ns, 1977
"The Halifax Explosion" http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/kylet1/halifax.html
"The Halifax Explosion" http://www3.ns.sympatico.ca/waverider/halifax_explosion_december- 6.htm
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