The “unsung heroes” of the Halifax explosion recovery effort

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As the city most involved in Canada’s World War I effort, Halifax was a hub for troops heading overseas and those returning from horrors in Europe, and its port was filled with ships carrying cargoes. stationery.

And on the morning of December 6, 1917, these realities merged into a horrific event known as the Halifax Explosion. It was the worst disaster in Canadian history, killing 2,000 people and injuring 9,000.

On that day, the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship, and the Imo, a Norwegian steamship carrying Belgian relief supplies, collided in the port of Halifax. In addition to the casualties, two square kilometers of Halifax were razed to the ground by the explosion.

The city needed to start its rescue and recovery efforts, but faced several challenges. There were no emergency safety organizations in place, and the police and fire departments were small, made up of just 39 police officers and 32 permanent firefighters and 120 volunteer firefighters, according to John Boileau, the ‘author of 6:12:17: The Halifax Explosion.

The aftermath of the Halifax Explosion is illustrated in this 1917 file photo. (The Canadian Press)

While Halifax’s role in World War I ultimately led to the explosion, which marks its 104th anniversary on Monday, it is “also the main reason why the response to the disaster was so swift and coordinated.” said Boileau.

“This significant military and naval presence, including medical personnel and hospital facilities, has helped save lives, prevent further deaths, [providing] first aid to the wounded, ”he said.

“A number of unsung heroes”

The military’s role in helping Halifax recover was vital, but often overlooked, according to Boileau. He said it is his personal mission to change that and to better recognize the efforts of the military.

Boileau said that for many years after the explosion, many Halifax residents resented the Royal Canadian Navy for its alleged responsibility in the explosion, as it was responsible for the movements of ships in the harbor. But he said the military has received neither blame nor credit from citizens for its role in the relief effort.

“I believe there were a number of unsung heroes out there that were never properly recognized,” he said.

Destroyed homes on Campbell’s Road in Halifax are shown in this 1917 or 1918 photo from the Nova Scotia Archives. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management / The Canadian Press)

At the time of the explosion, Halifax had a population of 50,000. There were 5,000 Canadian troops stationed there, most of them guarding the forts in the region, with the rest coming from or going to Europe.

Boileau said on top of that, there were a few hundred American, British and Canadian sailors in the city, as well as 600 military medics and several military treatment facilities.

The military were ideally placed to help Halifax emerge from its darkest day, as they were trained to operate in disaster areas – and Halifax looked like one on December 6, 1917.

Lt.-Col. Frank McKelvey Bell, who was Deputy Director of Medical Services for Military District 6 at the time of the explosion, believed this to be true.

“I have never seen anything on the front line equal to the scenes of destruction I witnessed in Halifax today,” he said that day.

The destruction was so terrible, said Boileau, that when “men who worked away from home heard the explosion and rushed to their homes in North Halifax, they couldn’t even tell where their homes were. because they couldn’t “I can’t even find the streets.”

Funerals for some of the victims of the Halifax explosion. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, item 2455)

Boileau said the soldiers and sailors helped with a variety of tasks, including digging through rubble for survivors, putting out fires, digging graves, delivering food and protecting themselves from looters. The effort brought order to the chaos that gripped the city.

Letter from a man in Philadelphia describes the scene

An anonymous man from Philadelphia who volunteered for the British Expeditionary Force fighting in northern France was part of that relief effort. He left his home in November 1917 for Halifax, where he was to await overseas transport. He arrived a few days before the explosion and detailed his memories in a 15 page letter.

At the time of the explosion, the man was in the Halifax Armory. After the explosion, he and other soldiers dressed and headed for the exit, with fires “raging in all directions.”

“Threads were strewn on the streets in all directions,” he wrote. “The” living “as well as the” dead “; we couldn’t tell which was a “live” wire or which was not loaded.

He even came across a train full of Canadian veterans who had just returned from France. He noted the irony: while they had managed to return to Canada after serving overseas, this is where most of them died.

Author John Boileau owns a copy of his book 6:12:17: The Halifax Explosion. He says he can’t understand why the military’s role in the Halifax blast recovery effort isn’t getting much attention. (Craig Paisley / CBC)

One of the things the man did as part of the relief effort was work in the morgue, which was located in the basement of the school on Chebucto Road, known today as the Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts.

“A horrible, smelly [sic] job; trying to identify these poor victims by organizing any small piece of evidence that could be found on them, so that relatives and friends who continually filled the mortuary had a chance to recognize their possessions, ”he wrote .

“In many cases, it was absolutely impossible to identify any of them from the state they were in. The heartbreaking scenes I witnessed there will live on in my memory for so long. that I will live. “

The Norwegian steamboat Imo was stranded on the Dartmouth coast after the Halifax explosion in 1917. Its collision with the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc sparked the fire that set off the explosion. (Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management / The Canadian Press)

The man helped dig trenches where the victims could be buried. The work was carried out in “intense cold” and “rain, sleet and high winds”.

As the place soldiers came and went, the volunteer wouldn’t have been the only person to find themselves in a new environment, only to be caught up in the Halifax Explosion.

Even on the day of the explosion, the relief effort was not overwhelmed. This was illustrated by certain telegrams exchanged between the senior military official in Ottawa who asked if more military resources were needed. Major-General’s response. Thomas Benson, Nova Scotia’s senior military official, was succinct: “Thank you very much. Situation well in hand. Full report later.

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