The Halifax Explosion of 1917

Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917

“People were packed in our car like flies. Some of them came to the place with noses shot off, eyes put out, faces slashed with flying glass, limbs torn and distorted. One man came in with blood streaming from what was originally his face. On one occasion while we were working around a wrecked building we could see a little baby 50 feet or more underneath a burning mass crying for aid. We could not get within 30 feet of the child and had to watch while it burned to death. Men and women children were lying on the streets and hundreds must be buried beneath the wreckage.” ~Esmond P. Barry, Eyewitness to the Halifax Explosion of 19171

 

I first learned of the Halifax explosion of 1917 from my mother’s biography of her mother, Velma Jane Moore, who was attending Dalhousie University in Halifax at the time of the explosion:

I remember her telling about the awful Halifax explosion. Wikipedia says that on 6 December 1917 the S.S. Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying munitions collided with the Norwegian SS Imo in Halifax Harbor. A fire on the French ship broke out and the munitions exploded. The explosion was the largest man-made explosion until the A-bomb, 2,000 were killed by debris and fires and 9,000 injured. I can see why Velma remembered this.2

 

When my husband and I visited Halifax in July of 2017, we made a point of going to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic to learn more. Once we’d finished viewing the Halifax explosion exhibit and learned the full horror of what had happened, I was struck by just how incongruous the following part of the exhibit seemed. The central image of the little girl flying through the air conveyed a sense of whimsy that was really quite jarring.

Image: The Halifax Explosion Memorial Quilt, Collision in the Narrows Exhibit, Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax, Nova Scotia, July 2017

The following map from the Nova Scotia Archives3 shows where Velma would have been on the Dalhousie campus in relation to the waterfront. The blue shading at the bottom of the map indicates the area that was leveled.

Given the distance of Dalhousie from the waterfront, I wasn’t sure whether the campus would have sustained any damage. A search through the online University archives revealed photographs of buildings that had received some relatively minor damage, mostly broken windows. The Dalhousie Gazette reported that two students were seriously injured. One student lost an eye due to flying glass and another sustained injuries to her face and hands.4 Several people in the Law Library at the time of the explosion suffered minor cuts and bruises.5

Dalhousie University Science Building after the Halifax Explosion of 1917

MacDonald Memorial Library after the Halifax Explosion of 1917

The Dalhousie campus community rallied to help the injured:

Within fifteen minutes after the explosion, probably every student in the higher three years was rendering first aid, and the majority of the students from every faculty were assisting in a variety of ways as numerous as the needs they saw. In a few hours most of the medical and a goodly number of the others had found places of usefulness in the dressing stations, and particularly at the Victoria General and Camp Hill hospitals. . . . The fifth year men were at work for hours at a time, doing things in the operating rooms and wards of the V. G. H. of which specialists need not have been ashamed. Students of the fourth year did dressings, gave anaesthetics, and in many ways made practical application of surgical knowledge recently acquired.6

 

In the interest of balanced reporting, there was a brief mention in the article that, “There were a few regrettable actions by the students. A very few failed to do their duty as college men and women . . . ” 7

In addition to the medical students, the young women on campus were singled out for particular mention in two different articles:

Dalhousie girls responded nobly and promptly to the call for voluntary helpers. The day of the explosion many of them went directly to the hospitals, emergency and permanent, where, among the horrible confusion and sickening scenes, they did what they could towards assisting the doctors. Others helped in distributing food and clothing, or in house to house visiting.8

If there is any one class of Dalhousians which, in the writer’s estimation, is deserving of special mention, it is the young ladies of the University, who so quietly went to work, assisting in the dressing of wounds and ministering to the comfort of patients amid scenes of agony and death to which they were absolutely unaccustomed, and which are known to have shocked the nerves of even those accustomed to surgical work.9

 

I was proud but not surprised to find Velma listed among the Dalhousie girls who had provided relief to the wounded in the immediate aftermath of the explosion:

Ward work at the various hospitals: Freda Creighton, Bert Colwell, Merle Colpitt, Anna Creighton, Miss Clark, Marion Doane, Gwen Fraser, Ruth Glasel, Miss Harris, Miss Lindsay, Emmeline and Arabella McKenzie, Christine McKinnon, Sally MacDonald, Jean MacDonald, Christine MacCleod, Nell Melrose, Velma Moore, Florence Murray, Eliphail Nichols, Margaret Pugsley, Jean Ross, Frances Russell, Katherine Tattrie.10

 

However, I found the final article concluding the  Dalhousie Gazette‘s front page coverage of the Halifax explosion to be in poor taste, even for those of the adolescent persuasion:

NOT EVEN T.N.T. COULD STOP THE EXAMS

The Faculty, always so tenderly considerate of the students, felt that, in spite of this catastrophe, it would be shameful to deprive them of the Christmas Examinations, and so, on the twenty-first of January, they played Santa Claus, by presenting us with a series of one hour quizzes. Then, lest we grow blase with inaction, they ordained that lectures should continue through the Examination period. Great was the gnashing of teeth among the afflicted, as the explosion had blown every molecule of many a normally near-vacuum. Everyone agreed that district visiting was much more interesting than the Ablative Absolute, but alas the callous Senate refused to adopt this humanitarian idea.11

 

For Additional Information:

The Nova Scotia Archives has a wealth of primary sources about the Halifax explosion, “including records accumulated by Archibald MacMechan, professor of English language and literature at Dalhousie University, Halifax NS. Immediately following the 1917 Explosion, MacMechan was requested by authorities to prepare an official history of the explosion and was given the title of director of the Halifax Disaster Record Office, 1917-1918.”12 Dr. MacMechan was Velma’s English professor.


Image: W. G. MacGlaughlin, Looking north toward Pier 8 from Hillis foundry after great explosion, Halifax, Dec. 6, 1917, 1917, photograph, Reference no.: W.G. MacLaughlan Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1988-34 no. 14, A Vision of Regeneration, Nova Scotia Archives.

1“Eyewitnesses Tell of the Awful Scenes in Streets,” The Boston Globe (Boston), December 7, 1917, 6.

2Kay Brown Gauffreau, “The Ancestry & Life of Velma Jane Moore Brown” (unpublished manuscript, December 2013), 25.

3“Plan Showing Devastated Area of Halifax City, N.S.,” map, 1918, Reference no.: N.S. Board of Insurance Underwriters Nova Scotia Archives V6/240 – 1917 Halifax loc.4.2.3.2, A Vision of Regeneration, Nova Scotia Archives, Halifax.

4“Casualties at Dalhousie,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

5“Casualties,” Dalhousie Gazette.

Photograph of the Dalhousie University Science building broken windows, MS-2-718, PB Box 14, Folder 23, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Photograph of MacDonald Memorial Library after Halifax Explosion / PC1, Box 31, Folder 12, Item 2, Dalhousie University Archives, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

6“Dalhousians and Medical Relief Work,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 2.

7“Medical Relief,” Dalhousie Gazette.

8“Relief Work among the Women,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

9“Medical Relief,” Dalhousie Gazette.

10“Women,” Dalhousie Gazette.

11“Not Even T. N. T. Could Stop the Exams,” Dalhousie Gazette L, no. 1 (January 29, 1918): 1.

12Province of Nova Scotia, “1917 Halifax Explosion: Personal Narratives and other materials,” Nova Scotia Archives, accessed July 4, 2018, https://novascotia.ca/archives/explosion/personal.asp.

18 thoughts on “The Halifax Explosion of 1917

  1. A great subject for a post, and you covered it very well. I first heard about the Explosion during annual coverage of the Boston Christmas Tree. For your readers who might not know this, a tree was donated in 1917 by the people of Nova Scotia in thanks for the aid sent by Bostonians after the Explosion. A tree has been donated every year since 1971, and the event is both symbolic and festive, from the cutting in Nova Scotia to the lighting on the Boston Common.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I visited Halifax several years ago and learned about the explosion then. It’s always more interesting to learn about historic events through first-person accounts such as those you quoted. I wonder how the experience shaped the lives and outlooks of Velma and others who were there at the time.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Your article reminded me that I’d read about this explosion in BBC History Magazine. However, the photos you’ve chosen are much more impactful. The one with the windows blown out is quite shocking.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You tell the story well, Liz. Your grandmother and her fellow students showed strength and selflessness in helping others when they, too, were so impacted by the explosion. It must have been quite an experience for you and your husband to visit Dalhousie.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Great writing, Liz. I had not heard about this explosion until reading your blog. What a great tragedy, the eyewitness account is harrowing to say the least. How wonderful to find out that your grandmother was there doing what she could to help. It says a great deal about the kind of person she was!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My great uncle enlisted in the Canadian Navy Reserves in Oct 1917 and did his telegraphist training on The HMCS Niobe, the depot ship in Halifax harbour. He may well have been aboard when the ship was damaged in the blast.
    Sounds like your grandmother had grit. It is in disasters such as this that we find what we are made of.

    Liked by 1 person

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