I had no intention of writing this post; however, I was inspired to do so this past Sunday (December 6). That day, as it has done for the last 98 years, Halifax, Nova Scotia, marked the anniversary of the catastrophic Halifax Explosion that ripped it to pieces in 1917 and left it very much a shattered city.
In search of something relevant to share on my Twitter feed that linked the explosion to Island history, I found myself scanning period issues of The Guardian for local coverage of the disaster. And that’s when I started finding a slew of articles on two fronts: those that dealt with the Island’s contribution(s) to relief efforts; and those that pertained to the experiences of Islanders in Halifax who lived to tell the tale. Admittedly, it was an angle I hadn’t before considered.
But am I ever glad that I did.
What follows is something of a narrative that weaves together both of these facets to provide a sense of the Halifax Explosion from an Island perspective. But first, a bit of a primer to catch everyone up to speed.
It was business as usual as the sun rose on the port city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the morning of December 6, 1917. The harbour, which had established a preeminent reputation as a naval nerve centre, hummed with activity as the war in Europe continued to drag on and an unending procession of ships passed in and out of the Narrows that separate the capital city from neighbouring Dartmouth. People were rushing off to jobs, and children were making their way to another school day. Christmas was peeking around the corner.
Everything was normal, or as normal as could be expected given the situation in Europe. And then, just as quickly, everything changed. Forever.
At the epicentre of the tragedy were two ships. One, a French munitions vessel by the name of Mont-Blanc, was slated to join a convoy headed across the Atlantic with supplies for the war effort. On board? A dangerous cargo which, when added together, contained all the necessary ingredients to fashion a gigantic bomb: large quantities each of TNT, wet and dry picric acid, guncotton, and benzol. The other player was the Imo, a Belgian relief ship on its way to New York to pick up supplies destined for civilians in a Belgium devastated by war. Unfortunately, neither ship would reach its destination.
The affair began about 7:30 AM when the submarine nets that protected the harbour from the threat of German U-boats were lowered and ship traffic resumed for another day. The Mont-Blanc, which had spent the previous night anchored outside the nets, began its journey into the Narrows in order to meet up with the convoy. The Imo, which had found itself stuck inside the nets in Bedford Basin, was chomping at the bit to get on its way and set off at a rapid pace. It shot for the Narrows at a speed above the acceptable limit, and had a few near-misses with other vessels in its haste. And then, at a choke point, it came face to face with the Mont-Blanc.
For reasons still debated, as the two ships approached one another, neither one could agree on who should concede the right-of-way. Both felt it was the other’s obligation, and so both communicated that they were staying their course. At the very last minute, when it was realized that collision was imminent, each ship attempted to zig-zag. It might have worked – except for the fact that they did so in the same direction.
The collision occurred around 8:45, with the Imo knocking up against the Mont-Blanc‘s starboard prow. Metal on metal created sparks, which ignited a fire inside the latter’s hull. Only the Mont-Blanc‘s crew knew the highly unstable nature of the cargo she carried, and they wasted little time in abandoning her. Because of an unfortunate language barrier, for everyone else it was just a ship on fire.
As the Mont-Blanc came up against the shoreline at Pier 6, vessels in the vicinity attempted to grapple onto the flaming ship and tow it to safer water to no avail. By this time, the fire department had also moblized and made its way to the docks to fight the flames. Curious passersby could not help flocking as close as they could to the scene.
It was a disaster just waiting to happen.
Just before 9:05 AM, the Mont-Blanc – a ticking time bomb unbeknownst to practically all but its crew – blew. It was the largest man-made explosion prior to the advent of the Atomic Bomb. And the devastation it rendered instantly brought Halifax to its knees.
Ground Zero was a two kilometre-square area around Pier 6 (inlcuding the Dartmouth shoreline on the other side of the Narrows), inside which everything was destroyed – but the radius extended far beyond. Buildings were toppled as if they were made of nothing more than matchsticks. Fires broke out. Communication lines were cut. Glass, wood, and other debris whizzed through the air like shrapnel.
The casualty rate was staggering. Immediately, the blast claimed somewhere in the region of 1,500 lives, with many more to be lost in the aftermath. An estimated 9,000 people were injured. People lay dead, wounded, and buried in rubble. And the nightmare was only just beginning.
Hospitals, make-shift medical centres, supplies, and the medical personnel to deal with it all were very quickly overrun. To make matters worse, the city was then hit by not one, but two blizzards, and a torrential rainfall, causing outside relief to be delayed. It was a living Hell.
On Friday, December 7, the Guardian, under the headline “British War Vessel Blown Up In Halifax”, reported that around 9:30 AM the previous morning, a “severe shock” passed through the city.
Houses rocked, doors slammed, pictures swung from their positions and people were dreadfully alarmed. In The Guardian office the Linotype machines were tipped almost over, and the operators had difficulty in keeping their positions.
However, with communication lines severed, information about the nature of the disaster had been difficult to come by, and Islanders were very much in the dark. What the heck was going on? According to the Guardian, when a telephone message never made it past Pictou because of “wire trouble”, it was believed that a munitions factory in New Glasgow had exploded. Later, it was learned that either a British man-of-war or munitions ship had been blown up in Halifax Harbour, the suspected work of a German spy or submarine.
Finally, late in the day, word had arrived wirelessly from England by way of New York which painted a much more accurate picture: over 1000 lives had been lost when a Belgian relief ship rammed a British vessel loaded with munitions (actually French).
Immediately, the Island’s premier, Aubin Arsenault, fired off the following telegram to his counterpart in Nova Scotia, G.H. Murray:
“Kindly accept on behalf of the Capital City of Nova Scotia the sincere sympathies of the people of this province. The terrible catastrophe which has befallen Halifax has greatly shocked us. A doctor and fourteen nurses have been rushed to the rescue. If there is anything further we can do command us.”
Charlottetown’s mayor, P.S. Brown, sent a similar telegram to Halifax’s Mayor Martin:
“On behalf of the citizens of Charlottetown, I extend their heart felt sympathy to your suffering people. Council meets Monday. Will send you assistance at once for those in need.”
Given the mayhem, responses to both messages were slow in coming. P.C. Flood, Chairman of the Relief Committee in Halifax, answered Brown:
“Thanks for kind telegram will give you our definite needs later.”
Murray returned Arsenault’s telegram on the 9th, stating that, in light of the “appaling [sic] disaster”, the “most generous aid from sister provinces” would be entirely welcome. Aubin promised substantial aid following a meeting of his Council. (When it did meet, it would resolve to contribute $8,000 in cash).
By the morning of 10th, Mayor Brown had set up a Halifax relief fund, in addition to a public meeting of council in order to determine others means of relief. As the Guardian editorialized:
“This is not the time for much talk; action is imperative and each citizen will show the depth of his sympathy by the amount of his contribution compared with his means.”
The action should be speedy – it felt that Charlottetown had already tarried enough in its response; however, in less than 12 hours after the fund had been established, it had managed to accrue $475, with $25 coming from Brown himself. A city council meeting that evening saw a vote in favour of $2,000 in relief, and it was also arranged to have refugees, up to 100, sent to Charlottetown, where they would be put up either at a property on Fitzroy St. owned by B.W. Lepage, or the Knights of Columbus Hall at the corner of Kent and Pownal. In addition, the Island would contribute a team of motor trucks to be put to use delivering supplies and assisting in the removal of wreckage. 500 bags of potatoes would also be sent. A representative of the Knights of Columbus was in attendance, and made known that the sum of $2,000 had been wired to Halifax, and that more could be forthcoming if needed.
The same day, the Guardian began to run a list of names of those Islanders known to be in Halifax and how they had fared in the disaster:
- Wilfrid Godfrey, formerly of Marshfield, an Arts student at Dalhousie, unhurt (although his house was wrecked).
- Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Lucas and family (Mrs. Lucas was the daughter of Captain Finlayson of Charlottetown), safe.
- Miss Fannie Gill, daughter of Mrs. F.H. Gill, Kent Street, safe.
- John Agnew, son of John Agnew of Charlottetown, safe.
- George Arsenault, cook aboard H.M.S. Niobe, slightly wounded on his ship. (Note: the Niobe was one of the ships that had attempted to tow the Mont-Blanc away from Pier 6.)
- Mark McInnis of Charlottetown, stationed in Halifax, safe.
- Miss Hilda Jenkins, daughter of Lt. Col. and Mrs. S.R. Jenkins, made it to Pictou by Saturday night along with a Newfoundland school mate.
- George Hillis and his wife (the daughter of H.G. Compton of Summerside), and their two children, previously reported killed, safe.
- Bert and Frank Hillis, George Hillis’ brothers, missing.
- Sgt. Carr, brother of David and William Carr of Charlottetown, safe.
Over the next few days, reports of other Islanders in Halifax would trickle in: W.T. Huggan would learn that his sisters were safe, despite the destruction of their home; Rev. L.J. Leard and his wife, who were in Halifax visiting with her parents, would also be reported safe, and would return to the Island with her sister’s children, who had lost their home to fire; Sgt. Camile Gallant was also reported safe, but slightly wounded; Island members of the Composite Battalion, garrisoned in Halifax, survived to a man; Mr. J. Leslie McDuff and family, living in Halifax, were alive; City Councillor P.A. Smith received word that his daughter was in hospital; and Major Freeman Boulter and wife, alive and well.
But it was courtesy of Fenton R. Newsome of Charlottetown that the eyes of Islanders were well and truly opened. Newsome had been in Halifax at the time of the explosion and had managed to return to the Island by the night of the 8th (Saturday), whereupon he gave an eye-witness account of his experience to the Guardian. Although lengthy, it is worth reproducing in full for the graphic picture it paints:
When the explosion occurred at 9:05 Thursday morning, I was in the shoe shining parlors of the Halifax Hotel. The building shook and quivered like a basket and I was thrown from the seat to the floor, landing on top of the shoe shiner. I escaped without a scratch or a bruise.
The first thought was that the boiler in the cellar had blown up and wrecked the hotel. I immediately went to investigate the damage and on entering the main office found nearly all the guests bleeding and some of them terribly cut about the face, head and hands by broken glass from windows and doors.
On going into the street, we learned with horror that all the buildings in sight were delapidated [sic] condition with windows and doors smashed to atoms.
People then began to wonder what had happened. The first idea was that it was a bombardment from a German warship or aeroplane, and the question was, where was the safest place, whether to remain in the open or to dig to the cellars. Those who escaped uninjured helped those who were badly cut or otherwise hurt. In this section of the city, the injuries generally were of a minor kind, very few being seriously hurt. The people on the streets generally remained calm and made up their minds to wait with patience for the next explosion. It was fully ten minutes or more before it was learned that a munition ship had blown up near the dry docks.
What had happened to the people in houses, stores, factories, churches, public buildings, etc. in the section near the explosion, when such damage was done nearly two miles away?
All, who were able, were wending their way in the one direction as quickly as possible, by foot, automobiles and teams. At this time the street cars were cut off from their electric power.
The nearer we got to the scene of the explosion, the more horrible the sights. Men, women and children were being carried to some place for treatment with their heads and faces covered with blood and others with broken limbs. The dead were being moved by hundreds to the nearest morgues.
On arriving near the scenes of the explosion, the horrors of seeing the dead, of hearing the moans of the dying, the weeping of mothers and children, were beyond description.
The dry docks are situated near the north end railway station. Here one could see the Belgian Relief ship, that had caused such horrors, beached on the Dartmouth side. The battleship “Niobe”, which was tied up to the next pier, had two of her smoke stacks down and everything above deck practically demolished. Two large munitions ships, that were at the dry docks, suffered the same fate as the Niobe, only everything above their decks were swept clean away.
A large number of other ships were damaged in one way or another. One gasolene [sic] tug was hit by a shell or something which caused an explosion and all her crew were killed, except the Captain.
The North End Station, although a large structure, was badly damaged, also the King Edward Hotel.
From here north the whole city was in flames. The sugar refinery, Hillis’ foundry, dwellings, stores in the near section were already burned to the ground and the firemen were powerless as fires were breaking out in every direction, caused by the upsetting of stoves and electric wires.
From here one could see fires breaking out here and there in Dartmouth which also suffered badly.
We had been working with the dead and wounded for over an hour when everybody was ordered to the south end as quickly as possible. There seemed to be no possible way to save the big “magazine” in that section from exploding. The fire was getting nearer every second and the result of its explosion would mean the total destruction of the whole city. There was not much time lost in reaching the Commons and grounds behind the “citadel”.
Here the people were packed like sardines, waiting in almost breathless silence for the “magazine” to explode and with what results! What was going to happen next? The sad part of all was leaving the wounded behind to look after themselves.
Those who remained, at the risk of their own lives, [illegible – knew that the?] whole North End of the city was doomed. The portion of the North End burned to the ground covers over two square miles.
One of the sad things in the North End was that of a school where only three children escaped, the others being killed.
Guests in the city were asked to leave as soon as possible to make room for the homeless. I left the Halifax Hotel at five o’clock Thursday night and reached Charlottetown Saturday evening, two days and two nights from Halifax. Storms and right of way for relief trains for Halifax caused the delay and I am mighty glad to be home safe and well. In regard to the total damage, dead and wounded: As you see, I left Halifax on the afternoon of the day of the disaster and at that time it was impossible for anyone to make an estimate.
One thing I do know, there is not a plate glass window remaining in any section of the city and 90 percent of all the windows and doors are smashed. I left Halifax by the South End or by the new terminal line and I saw this for myself. The estimated number of dead and wounded varied and there were many different reports. When I left the fires were still raging.
In conversation with an official in one of the large military hospitals behind the citadel, I learned that this hospital was filled full, three and four in a room, within twenty minutes after the explosion. A large percentage died shortly after they were brought in. This hospital was one of the new concrete building erected this summer, and all the window and doors were damaged. Every window was broken clean out and the doors would not open or close. The suffering of the wounded from cold and shortage of medical aid and treatment was beyond description.
Like Newsome, there were many Islanders in Halifax fortunate enough to survive. One of the luckiest, however, might very well have been Albert H. Gillen. A former resident of Charlottetown, he had relocated to Halifax and found employment at the dockyard as a machinist, and his was a frighteningly close brush with death. He had been making repairs on the starboard side feed pump of the H.M.S. Margaret when he left to grab a tool at the machine shop. Just as he was returning to his post, the Mont-Blanc blew, and the force of the blast threw him clear through the starboard engine room door. He awoke face down on the room’s grating, and after making his way off the ship, was greeted by the sight of workmen bloodied and battered and screaming. Miraculously unscathed, he rolled up his sleeves to assist in transporting his fellow shipmates to hospital.
On December 11, five days after the disaster, Dr. Alexander Ross returned to Charlottetown. It was he who, along with 13 nurses, had formed the Island’s initial medical contingent authorized to head to Halifax by Premier Arsenault the day of the explosion. It had taken the team great effort to reach their destination: they had departed the Island Thursday night and were in Truro by 7 AM Friday; however, they then faced a lengthy delay due to poor weather, and only arrived in the city 12 hours later amid a raging blizzard. Once in Halifax, no time was wasted in getting to work, but it was an uphill battle: the explosion, coupled with subsequent poor weather (two blizzards and torrential rainfall), made it very difficult to assist the ever-growing number of people in need. Upon his return, Dr. Ross recounted his experiences to the Guardian, painting a picture of the destruction and carnage. He was particularly moved by one encounter:
“One of the most pathetic sights that I saw was that of a woman who had lost both eyes, and was also badly wounded about the head and upper part of the body. This woman gave birth to a child the day following the explosion. Many cases of premature births have been reported, some of them dying before assistance could arrive.”
The explosion had been indiscriminate in the lives it claimed and the people it wounded. While many children fell victim, many more suddenly found themselves without a home, or parents. On the 12th, the Guardian took the initiative and began running ads calling for the temporary adoption of homeless children. By the next day, 12 households had stepped forward willing to provide for 14 children. More would follow suit.
Also on the 12th, a second medical contingent that had been organized by, and which included Lt. Col. Jenkins departed the Island comprising of 8 nurses and 4 doctors. Since the day of the explosion, Jenkins had been in communication with a military colleague in Halifax who had stressed the urgent need for medical aid. But he had needed no convincing: his daughter Hilda (above) was in Halifax at the time, though had managed to survive and make her way out of the city.
Relief efforts, now spanning the Island, continued at a brisk pace as the days wore on, much as they did in many other places. One of note was a grand concert to be held at the Market Hall in Charlottetown on the night of the 18th, with all proceeds going to the stricken of Halifax. The concert would feature the “cream of musical talent in the city”, and was an event not to be missed.
And it wasn’t.
With an admission price of mere cents, the concert pulled in over $200 – and a week before Christmas at that.
Little by little, thanks to the fortitude of its citizens, in addition to the support received from across the country as well as from many places in the US (notably Boston), Halifax was put on the long road to recovery. And long though this post has been, truth be told I’ve only shared with you a portion of the stories out there that relate to the Island’s involvement. I encourage you to see what else you can find, and to comment to that effect below.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – My apologies for subjecting you to such a large amount of text. There are, however, many photographs out there which depict the aftermath of the explosion. Let Google Images be thy guide.