By Jay Rankin, Army Public Affairs
It’s been 101 years since thousands of Canadian soldiers, other military personnel and civilians rushed to save the city and its people.
December 6 marks the anniversary of the 1917 Halifax Explosion, a tragedy that killed about 2,000 people, seriously injured 9,000 more, and left 25,000 survivors homeless after an explosion of a munitions ship left the wartime harbour and city in ruins.
The disaster occurred after a series of missteps resulted in the collision of the Norwegian ship Imo and French ship Mont-Blanc in the Halifax Harbour. The latter vessel was transporting explosives from New York City to Bordeaux, France. When the ships collided, barrels of flammable chemicals toppled on the French ship, spilling the liquid into the hull and vapour into the air. As both hulls ground together, sparks ignited the vapour, igniting a massive fire that couldn’t be extinguished.
Roughly 20 minutes after the collision, at 9:04:35 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded.
One-fifth the force of Hiroshima’s nuclear bomb unleashed
“The death, injury and sheer devastation that descended upon Halifax equalled the worst of the carnage the First World War inflicted on the battlefields of Europe,” said historian Colonel (Retired) John Boileau during a talk entitled 6:12:17 The Halifax Explosion on November 22, 2017 at the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia in Halifax as part of the 100-year anniversary commemoration events. Col (Retd) Boileau is a frequent and well- known writer on defence matters and is the author of several military history books
The blast was the equivalent of 2.9 kilotons of TNT, the largest human-made explosion to that date and one-fifth the force of the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War nearly 28 years later.
A Mi’kmaq village and thousands of buildings destroyed
The Mont-Blanc disintegrated, pieces flew everywhere, and the Imo was blown ashore. Several ships attempting to help with the fire or tow the boat were blown apart. More than 2,600 buildings were set ablaze, collapsed, or wrecked to the point they were inhabitable.
A Mi’kmaq village in Turtle Grove was completely destroyed.
More than 1,000 people blinded in an instant
The blast’s shockwave shattered windows 100 kilometres away in Truro, Nova Scotia, and could be heard in Prince Edward Island.
The explosion was powerful enough to blind more than 1,000 people who had unfortunately glanced at it.
Immediately after the explosion, civilians and soldiers rushed to help those in need, digging through rubble, looking for survivors in collapsed buildings and tending to thousands of wounded. The following day, a blizzard hit Halifax, making recovery efforts all the more difficult.
Canadian and British military performed search and rescue, built shelters and hospitals
Col (Retd) Boileau said there were 5,000 Canadian soldiers in the city at the time – many garrisoned, while others were in transit, waiting to be shipped out to the European warfront.
“The important role the Army and Navy played in the rescue and recovery operations has never been formally recognized,” he said.
Aside from finding and assisting wounded survivors, soldiers also quickly constructed emergency residences for those left homeless – they set up 400 tents with floors, heating, and beds in front of the Halifax Armouries. A 250-bed marquee hospital was also set up in front of the Armouries.
Many medical personnel on hand because of wartime
Among the soldiers, there were 600 medical personnel, as the city was a major stop for wounded soldiers coming in over the Atlantic Ocean.
One hospital, the Pier 2 casualty clearing station, was damaged in the blast, but several emergency hospitals were erected to deal with relief efforts – at one point totalling more than 40 hospitals throughout the city. A number of military medical officers and other personnel also came from surrounding military districts to help with the crisis.
Along with the work of Canadian and British soldiers, sailors went to work helping those in need. Boston even played a major role in helping the city – the Boston Red Cross set up a 150-bed hospital.
To commemorate the Massachusetts city’s assistance, Nova Scotia sends a large tree to the city every Christmas holiday season.