A first person account written by my Great Grandmother
The Halifax Explosion took place on December 6th, 1917 at 9:05am. It was the result of a terrible accident when two ships collided in Halifax Harbor – one of them loaded with a cargo of 5.85 million pounds of extremely volatile explosives. The munitions ship, the Mont Blanc, instantly caught fire on impact, lost control, and traveled directly across the harbor to the North end of the city to Pier 6, where it wedged against the wharf and exploded with an enormous force.
The resulting rain of fire, burning oil, shrapnel, and the seismic blast and following tsunami destroyed not only the waterfront of the harbor, but large areas of both Dartmouth and Halifax. And because it was winter time, all the houses and businesses had their winter store of coal in their basements – adding more fuel to the terrible fires and destruction.
It is considered by many to be second only to the Atom Bomb in its devastation. Over 2,000 people were killed, over 6000 injured, and more than 9,000 people were left homeless.
The world was at war (World War I) and the massive explosion was initially thought to be an attack by the Germans. Halifax at the time was one of the main ports for war ships from different countries coming to North America from Europe carrying troops and supplies and also going the other way.
A number of German submarines had been found in the vicinity adding to the nervousness of the city’s population. Giant nets were put in place every evening to prevent subs from entering the harbor, and mine sweepers went on regular daily inspections at the harbor mouth where they would explode any German mines that were found.
But it wasn’t the Germans…
The destruction from the munition ship’s explosion was immediate and devastating. The seismic blast and flying shards of metal from the 6,880,627 pounds of iron hull (much of it vaporized in the blast in temperatures over 9,000 degrees F) and wood blew out all the glass in all of the buildings in a huge radius – causing horrible injuries, especially to the eyes.
Doctors and nurses rushed to Halifax from all over Canada and the Eastern United States to assist in caring for the wounded. And though there was a terrible loss of life, the disaster is credited with advancing many kinds of surgery (especially eye surgery), triage procedures and disaster preparedness procedures.
There are many accounts and books available on the subject if you are interested in more details…
The reason I am writing about this is because I was going through some family papers and found a photocopy of an old letter dated December 16, 1917 written by my Great Grandmother to her sister. In the letter she relates first hand, how the Francis family experienced the Halifax Explosion.
My Great Grandmother’s family lived in a big house on Coburg Road near Dalhousie University in Halifax – luckily they were far enough from the epicenter of the explosion that their house received relatively minor damage – only having most of their windows blown in. The family businesses also remained unscathed.
Like everyone in the intact part of the city, they opened their home to medical staff and patients, and helped in any way they could including making clothes for the children affected by the blast, and storing supplies for the needy.
Every able soldier and sailor in Halifax at the time was assigned work immediately following the explosion. They helped clear the debris and rescue victims, find bodies of the deceased, maintain order, and establish hospitals and other necessary emergency shelters and store houses. Their contribution was invaluable in getting the city back into some kind of normal.
My Grandfather, Colin Webster Innes, of whom I wrote about in my last post, had just returned from the Western Front in Belgium where he served as an officer in the 7th Canadian Engineers Battalion of the Canadian Army. He was On Active Duty at the time of the explosion.
He was given the grim task of setting up the centralized temporary morgue for the dead at the Chebucto Road School, and spent many days afterward trying to identify the more than 2,000 bodies. It must have been terrible work. In addition to searching the bodies for identifying marks and artifacts on their persons, it required taking family members in to view the bodies and in many cases the partial remains of loved ones. (The system that was put into place was that initially developed in Halifax for handling the bodies from the Titanic disaster of 1912.)
Following is a transcript of the letter. It was written 10 days after the explosion.
I could not decipher a couple of the words so I left blanks. I have tried to copy my Great Grandmother’s spelling and punctuation as closely to the original as possible.
207 Coburg Road
December 16th, 1917
Dear Mary and Charley
No doubt you are anxious to hear more about our circumstances. I feel ashamed that I did not write before. But really, I’ve been so mixed and broken up that I could not get my mind centered on anything, everybody seems to have a lump in their throats. Afï* Mary Dear one will never forget this awful tragedy. I will tell you how we met it. I was sitting in the kitchen with baby on my lap. I had just bathed her. Elsie was in the kitchen also. I said My what a blast. I no sooner said the words, when about fifty panes of glass came rushing in the three big windows in Kitchen each showering all on our heads. I jumped up and said God help us the Germans are here. Elsie said let us get to the cellar. We made our way there in the broken glass which seemed ankle deep and got down to find all the windows there broken and soot flew down the chimney in piles.
Kit was in bed. She jumped for her door. When she opened it she found the floors covered with glass, so had to go back and get something on her feet before she could get through all the while fearing another crash. You can imagine her feelings all alone. She could hear us getting down cellar. She thought as we did The Germans. We all got around the furnace waiting and wondering what the next would be. The maid ran around crying We’ll all be killed, any how I seemed to get strength and went up stairs to get some cloths, for Kit was in her night clothes. I also carried down the babies cab so as to keep her warm even though we had but a short time to live. Herb and Dady had gone to work so we were all alone and so far from our neighbours. After about five minutes the postman came and told us it was not the Germans, but a big munitions ship had exploded. We were then releaved. When in a minute more – the cry went round for every body to get out of their houses as there was going to be another explosion. Then all you could see was people running some carrying babes some with sick folk on stretchers, some with blood streaming down, some with broken limbs and so on. This was the scene on Coburg Rd and all this was simply heaven compared with the north end. As at that time we knew nothing of the carnage that was going on there. It is still burning. Most people had their winters coal in. I have not been up to see the ruins and don’t want to go. I have heard enough. Fanny Herb and Colin have been working among the dead and wounded, every body marked and are still at it. Six more bodies was found today and no doubt there are lots more. No use one trying to explain. We have sent you the papers and by this time you have some idea of it.
We are pretty well to rights now. The windows are boarded up, strange to say we have one pair of glass left in nearly all the windows. Three rooms, the front bedroom, Elsie’s room, the back parlor, had no glass broken but it was some time before we found that out.
Fred came down and made arrangements to have Grandmother moved as her place was not fit to live in long. Aunt Clarie offered very kindly to take her in so Tom and Fred went down to the transportation committee for it was not possible to get a cab any where, as all vehicles of every kind was seized to do the work necessary.
Any how we secured one through the relief committee and planed to go for Grandmother at three o’clock. She willing to be ready with my help. A little before this Maggie appeared on the scene and took Grandmother to her place and so we had our trouble for nothing.
Maggie is full of doing something and with her big heart she has Grandmother there quite comfortable and happy. Because she is near her old traps and Joe is keeping bachlors hall of course Lane said for Maggie to do every thing in her power to make her comfortable and he would pay her so she got a _____ nurse to come and wash and bathe her leg also Dr ME Colly was to see her and gave her a tonic, she has a little cold. We were up to see her today and she is a little wheezy. It is a wonder she is living as she says she had no time to dress herself when the order came to get out except her fur coat. She had very little on underneath. She said she had been looking all ____ to get well enough to have an outing little did she think she was going to get it that morning. She does make you laugh.
Tom was up to see her today and found her quite comfortable and happy. He gave her a five and with your twenty five she feels herself a queen. So no one need worry about her. Maggie seems to be delighted to do for her. She says it is her part of the work towards the disaster.
I had a patient they sent me from Camphill Hospital. I also had a nurse. I made accommodation for three nurses. Everybody had to open their houses for Drs and nurses, or anybody else. My patients have left me today. They were not burnt out, so have returned to their rooms. The girls are sewing and making up shaker flannel clothes for children, as everybody is trying to do something, but now we have heaps of clothing and everything else sent in from out side as no doubt you know.
Now the Waegwoltic** is turned into a hospital for returned soldiers, who all expect here any day, so nurses and Drs have their work cut out. Now dear I guess I have said enough for this time, hope you will be able to connect this letter I have got it all mixed up.
Just now Herb is telling things he has seen and heard, one man went hunting for his family and found the remains of which was a few charred bones. He gathered them up and put them in a curtain and carried them away, a wife and three children, another man found his cousin, all was left he could gather and carried it in his hand. I could not begin to tell you all the awful stories we know to be true.
I must close now.
Love to all
I remain your loving Sister Bainie
* Afï – French from Afier – To promise or swear (possible interpretation?)
** The Waegwoltic is a social club located on Coburg Road, on the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbor. Wounded troops were known to be on route from Europe at the time of the blast, and because all the Halifax hospitals were full, they had to fit out the club as a temporary hospital.
note: for those interested, I think the baby girl mentioned in the letter is my Aunt Barbara, Elsie and Colin’s first child. My Grandparents married in 1916 and lived with the Francis family on Coburg Road for a few years.