Did you know after the events of 6 December 1917, the “Halifax Explosion” became the common reference point against which later explosions were compared? The severity – and popularity – of the disaster ensured that anything likened in strength to the “Halifax Explosion” could be easily understood by the average citizen. In fact, J. Robert Oppenheimer later used the numbers gathered from the Halifax Explosion to determine the potential effects of a nuclear explosion (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 288).
On this day in 1917, the HMS Stephen Furness, an armed boarding steamer, is torpedoed by the German submarine UB-64 off the western coast of the Isle of Man, sinking before lifeboats can be lowered. The loss of one hundred lives includes five Canadians from the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve. Lost at sea, they are commemorated on the Halifax Memorial. We remember:
Able Seaman Albert Edward Wigmore
Able Seaman William Franklyn Romans
Able Seaman Harold Bennett Lawes
Able Seaman Robert Donald Watt
Able Seaman Henry Leo Meehan
The response to the Halifax Explosion was global in size. In addition to the relief trains that now filled the tracks headed to Halifax, monetary donations soon began pouring in when the city officials issued a Public Appeal to the rest of Canada (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 221). Donations came from businesses, private individuals, churches and federal governments. Australia gave $250,000; Britain and the United States both donated $5 million (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 222). In Boston, a benefit concert featuring Australian soprano Nellie Melba, Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler and the Boston Symphony sold out the day it was announced (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 222). When the Eastern Steamships Company provided another ship for deliveries to Halifax, such was the response for donations that the police had to be called in for crowd control (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 222). Monetary donations to the Halifax Relief Fund would eventually total over $20 million (approximately $319 million in 2017).
Originally created by city officials on the day of the explosion, the Halifax Relief Commission was incorporated in 1918 to administer a $30 million disaster relief fund. The Commission was responsible for the medical care, compensation and rehabilitation of those injured or disabled by the Explosion, as well as instigating reconstruction efforts. In 1976, the Halifax Relief Commission was finally shut down, and its remaining $1.5 million and 68 dependents transferred to the Canada Pension Commission (Historica Canada – Canadian Encyclopedia, “Halifax Relief Commission”, 2017).
On this day in 1917, relief trains from across the Eastern Seaboard depart for Halifax, Nova Scotia. After the telegraph lines to Halifax went dead, Vincent Coleman’s last message out had flashed from station to station along the Eastern Seaboard (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103). Unsure of what had happened, but fearing that it was likely disastrous, nearby communities rallied to send relief. Railways were cleared of all regularly scheduled trains, and priority given to all available relief trains, which had already begun to arrive from towns across Eastern Canada before the end of 6 December 1917 (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178).
Immediate aid came from the military ships that had been moored in the Halifax Harbour at the time of the explosion. Both Canadian and American soldiers and sailors were sent ashore to aid in the recovery efforts. Meanwhile, sailing back from a transatlantic convoy escort, the USS Tacoma was 52 miles out at sea when its crew spotted the pall of smoke over Halifax. Sensing something was wrong, Captain Powers Symington altered course and headed straight for Halifax. The USS Van Steuben did the same (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 70). At night, American soldiers patrolled the streets, allowing the Canadians to rest (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 137).
In the United States, New York had sent its first train within twenty-four hours of the explosion, “filled with twenty engineers, doctors, nurses, $15,000 worth of tools, $150,000 worth of lumber, one thousand portable houses, and thirty thousand pounds of bandages” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 168). Before dawn on 7 December, the Boston & Maine relief train was already at McAdam, New Brunswick; “from McAdam Junction to St. John [New Brunswick], the platforms were lined with solemn-looking workers holding shovels, carpentry tools, and medical bags, hoping for a ride to Halifax” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 165).
Hampered by a snowstorm that drifted over and blocked the railway tracks, the Boston & Maine relief train finally pulled into Halifax on the morning of Saturday, 8 December 1917. With it came a letter from the Governor of Massachusetts, addressed to the mayor of Halifax:
“Understand your city in danger from explosion and conflagration. Reports only fragmentary. Massachusetts stands ready to go the limit in rendering every assistance you may be in need of… an important meeting of citizens has been held and Massachusetts stands ready to offer aid in any way… P.S. Realizing that time is of the utmost importance we have not waited for your answer but have dispatched the train.”
Upon receiving the letter, C. A. Hayes, the President of the Canadian Government Railway, wept.
(Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 178-179).
The city of Halifax was a bustling port during the First World War, with thousands of troopships and cargo vessels moving in and out each year. On the morning of 6 December 1917, the Halifax Harbour was busy as usual, and two ships were about to pass each other through the Narrows, a dangerous section of water between the harbour and the Bedford Basin. The SS Imo, a Belgian relief ship, had been unable to leave before the anti-submarine nets shut close on the harbour the previous night. Likewise, the SS Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, had been unable to enter the harbour in time (learn more here). Now on the morning of 6 December, both ships’ captains hoped to get underway. In a rush to escape the busy harbour, the Imo crossed over into the Mont Blanc’s path and failed to defer to the Mont Blanc’s right of way, which was naval law.
When the two ships collided at the entrance to the Narrows, the Imo’s bow tore a hole in the Mont Blanc. More importantly, it crushed a few grains of the extremely volatile dry picric acid. Few of those on shore knew of the Mont Blanc’s explosive cargo; it carried 5.85 million pounds of explosives, including picric acid, TNT, gun cotton, and benzol. When the loose grains of picric acid were set alight by the crushing force of the Imo’s bow, dense fumes from the barrels of benzol on deck caught fire and led the flames directly back to the barrels. In those few seconds, the fate of the ship, and Halifax, were sealed. Expecting an explosion at any moment, the Mont Blanc’s crew abandoned ship, and rowed frantically for shore, but for over twenty minutes the ship was adrift in the Narrows. It eventually came to rest against Pier 6 in the industrial neighbourhood of Richmond, where a crowd gathered to watch it burn.
At 9:04:35 a.m. the Mont Blanc exploded in a massive fireball. The explosive crash ripped through the air at “13,320 miles per hour – twenty-three times the speed of sound” (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 63). The blast’s air wave followed, flattening buildings instantaneously and sending shards of glass through the air, slicing through whatever stood in their path and causing terrible injuries. The ship’s entire hull was hurled in the air, tumbling within the fireball, with most of it simply vapourizing (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 62). Fragments of the ship tore into the buildings and people in the Halifax Harbour and dockyards. The 1,140-pound anchor shank flew through the air approximately 3.78 km, landing at Armdale, while the ship’s 90 mm gun landed over 2 km away at Albro Lake, Dartmouth. The explosion also caused a large tsunami in the harbour, the resulting twenty-foot wave smashed into buildings, swept people out to sea and decimated the Mi’Kmaq community in Tufts Cove.
In all almost 2 000 people are thought to have been killed, many were never found and some 250 bodies never identified. The city hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, many suffering from eye injuries as the result of broken glass or burns from the fires that spread across the city. Over 1 600 houses were destroyed, and many areas in Halifax and its surrounding communities were uninhabitable. More than 6 000 people were homeless, with little prospect of shelter for the winter.
Trains filled with donated goods were sent from across Atlantic Canada and the eastern United States, and over $30 million in financial aid was raised to help rebuild the city. This funding did not extend to the Mi’kmaq communities in Tufts Cover or to the black settlement of Africville on the Bedford Basin, both of which suffered damage either from the explosion itself or the tsunami. Restoration activities began almost immediately, to ensure that the port remained open for ships travelling to and from Europe. Despite a judicial inquiry and several civil suits, no blame for the explosion was ever officially laid.
Railway Dispatcher Patrick Vincent Coleman
Patrick Vincent Coleman was working as a telegraph operator at the Richmond railway station on the day of the explosion. Somehow, he and Chief Clerk William Lovett had been warned of the contents of the ship and the danger of imminent explosion. Coleman and Lovett realised that a passenger train was due to arrive at 8:55 am and hoped to stop it. Lovett managed to call the terminal agent further up the line and warn them of the imminent danger, after which both men left. However, Coleman returned to his office, and continued sending warnings by telegraph, which were picked up by the stations along the Truro line, in an attempt to stop any incoming trains bound for Halifax. He was killed at his desk when the explosion occurred at 9:05:34 a.m. Lovett was also killed. When the Halifax lines suddenly went dead, Coleman’s message “rocketed from station to station”, announcing to the outside world that something terrible had happened in Halifax (Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 103).
The Christmas Tree at Boston Common
When the Spanish flu struck in 1918, Nova Scotia sent a team of doctors to Boston to as a symbol of gratitude for the assistance received from Massachusetts after the Halifax Explosion. In December 1918, this gratitude was extended in the form of a Christmas tree, sent from Halifax and installed at the Boston Common. In 1971 the tradition was reinstated and has taken place every year since, with the lighting of the annual tree signaling the start of Boston’s Christmas festivities. In Halifax the gesture remains a sobering reminder of the loss suffered in December 1917. (See Mac Donald, Curse of The Narrows – The Halifax Explosion 1917, p. 273-274).
On this day in 1917, the SS Imo, a ship delivering food relief to occupied Belgium, is delayed in taking on coal in the Halifax Harbour. Meanwhile, at the mouth of the harbour, a French munitions ship, the SS Mont Blanc, is held up by the Examining Officer. During the delay, the anti-submarine nets running across the harbour at George’s Island close for the night, sealing off shipping traffic from passing in or out. The Imo is essentially “locked in”, while the Mont Blanc is “locked out”. With nothing left to do, both ship’s harbour pilots call it a night. A seemingly small inconvenience will prove to have dire consequences for Halifax.
“The story of the defence of Masnières and of the part which the Newfoundland Battalion played in it is one which, I trust, will never be forgotten on our side of the Atlantic.” – Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig
This week marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the first Battle of Cambrai (20 November – 6 December 1917). By the time the battle ended, the British had relinquished much of the territorial gains made on 20 November. An attack that had seen church bells rung in England to celebrate its initial success, was now ended with a general withdrawal. It was a bitter pill to swallow.
The Battle of Cambrai had a significant impact on the Newfoundland Regiment, so much so that they erected one of their six Caribou memorials at Masnières. In total, Newfoundland suffered 352 wounded and 110 dead in the attack, and subsequent defence, during the Cambrai offensive. Two weeks after the battle, King George V granted the prefix title of “Royal” to the Newfoundland Regiment, one of only three times the honour was bestowed while Britain was still at war (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 423).
On this day in 1917, the Germans renew their counter-attack in front of Cambrai. Still holding on at Marcoing since 30 November, the Newfoundlanders came under horrific shellfire, with entire sections of trench being flattened and the men “blown out of their posts” (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422). Refusing to lose ground to the enemy, Sergeant Leo Fitzpatrick, of Conche, Newfoundland, would earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal by day’s end.
Having already earned the Military Medal eight weeks prior during the Battle of Poelcappelle, Sergeant Fitzpatrick now volunteered to lead a squad in re-taking a lost section of trench. During the ensuing action, he rescued an officer that had been wounded and left behind, retreated, and then returned with grenades and proceeded to bomb the hostile party out of the trench (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422).
Despite being pushed back to the western side of the lock along the canal, the Newfoundland Regiment managed to hold on to Marcoing for the day. For their actions, many of their ranks would receive the Military Medal, including three stretcher bearers – Privates William Fowlow, Hubert Dibben, and John Hennebury (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 422). For their stand that day, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered one officer killed and seventy other ranks killed, wounded or prisoner.
The next day, 4 December 1917, General Byng ordered a general withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line’s Support System, establishing what was considered a stronger line for the winter, but at the loss of many of the hard-won objectives from the Cambrai offensive (Nicholson, The Fighting Newfoundlander, p. 423). For the Newfoundlanders, who had been relieved on the night of 3 December, it would have been difficult to physically witness the withdrawal from Marcoing and Masnières.