The Great Halifax Explosion, written by Author John Bacon and published in 2017, covers the events leading up to the explosion. The author describes how the Halifax explosion brought the once-rival cities of Halifax and Boston closer together and how the accident represented a watershed moment in Canada’s international relations, drawing it closer to the US and further away from the UK. The book is divided into sections that describe the history of Nova Scotia and some of its inhabitants, the explosion, and the rescue efforts and aftermath.
It also deals with the tumultuous American-Canadian relationship from the French and Indian war until WWI. It describes Canada’s crucial role in supplying the Allies during World War I, as well as the significance of its extremely deep marina. Halifax’s part in retrieving and burial victims after the Titanic’s disaster is recalled. Halifax, Nova Scotia, is one of the world’s most beautiful natural harbors. The year is 1917, and the harbor is clogged with ships transporting personnel, relief supplies, and explosives from North America to Europe. All ships bringing explosives into the sheltered harbor must fly a red flag, alerting other ships to give way and follow strict regulations. Bacon’s meticulously researched account vividly brings to life the sorrow, bravery, and astonishing afterlife of one of history’s most dramatic occurrences.
In the most devastating explosion in the pre-atomic age, the Mont Blanc, a French munitions ship, exploded a few minutes after colliding with another vessel in 1917 at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Two ships were trying to fit through the narrow neck of Halifax harbors in Canada, one riding so high that its propeller isn’t fully submerged and the other filled with weapons destined for the Great War in Europe. The weapons ship slams into the pier, sparking a sequence of fires and a large explosion that leveled blocks of buildings on both sides of the harbor—a tremendous explosion in history to that point, eclipsed only by the atomic bomb detonated on Hiroshima since then.
Shock waves blasted out windows, spewing glass; railroad tracks were thrown up, factories were crushed, and wooden houses were reduced to kindling. Fires raged, fueled not only by the explosives but also by overturned stoves and furnaces in homes; shock waves blasted out windows, spewing glass; railroad tracks were thrown up, factories were crushed, and wooden houses were reduced to kindling. The airwaves immediately formed a tsunami. Many people who managed to escape the fire were caught in the undertow and drowned.
The blast “destroyed 6,000 structures, rendering 25,000 people—nearly half the population of Halifax—homeless in one-ear-splitting whoosh” and killed 1,600 people instantly, according to Bacon. The bodies were strewn everywhere, many of them mangled or charred beyond recognition. Survivors initially assumed Germans had attacked the city; nevertheless, trials later established the captains’ guilt. When word reached other Canadian communities and Nova Scotia’s American neighbors through telegram, help arrived quickly and generously. Because of the war, Boston was unusually well-prepared, sending doctors, nurses, medical supplies, and millions of cash in relief. The yearly Christmas tree in Boston has been a gift of thanks from Halifax since 1976.
Before the explosion
The morning of December 6, 1917, in Halifax and Dartmouth, two seaside towns in Nova Scotia, Canada, was calm and clear, separated by a short port. A light, gentle mist hovered over the sea that morning. The towns were bustling with activity by 8 a.m; as mothers handed up pouring bowls of oats, soft smoke curled from chimneys. Fathers put on their coats and went to work as children gathered their schoolbooks. Horse-drawn wagons clattered along the streets in the northern Halifax neighborhood of Richmond, where Noble lived. Flour, beer, metal works, and other items were produced at factories. A tram rumbled along the waterfront, carrying gigantic freight ships parked in the harbor by study-looking guys. Noble had a fantastic view of the narrows, Halifax Harbor’s aptly named the narrowest section, from his property.
The ships that came in and out of the harbor piqued Noble’s interest. The majority belonged to the military, including minesweepers, submarines, and convoys transporting troops, weapons, and supplies to the European battle. Since 1914, World War I had been raging. A large number of countries were involved. The primary actors included the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, and the United States, while Germany, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire were on the other side. Across Europe, brutal battles were waged, but thousands of people from Halifax and Dartmouth were involved. Noble must have felt secure in his close-knit harbor side community. This would change in a matter of minutes. There was about to be a catastrophic accident. The Mont Blanc and the Imo were on a collision track that would be fatal. Noble’s neighborhood would be demolished in no time, with thousands of people killed.
The Mont-blanc was scheduled to join a convoy of ships bound for Europe on December 6. There was something special about the Mont-Blanc that only a few people outside of the crew were aware of. It was laden with potentially lethal explosives. The cargo held below deck was crammed with powerful explosives, including some of the most powerful on the market. Benzols, an explosive chemical akin to gasoline, was stored in barrels above deck. The ship was carrying roughly 3000 tons of explosives in all.
The Mont- Blanc arrived in Halifax Harbor around 8:30 a.m., headed north. A relief ship named Imo was departing the area at the same time, headed south. The Imo swerved out of its course to avoid colliding with another ship that had inadvertently crossed its route. The pilot of the IMO had no idea he had just maneuvered right into Mont- Blanc’s path. A catastrophe was taking shape.
The two ships blew their whistles as they approached each other. However, neither ship shifted course, indicating that the signals were misinterpreted. Francis Mackey, the pilot of the Mont-Blanc, turned left, and the IMO reversed its engines. But it was too late; the Imo had ripped the Mont-Blanc to shreds. Benzol barrels fell and splashed open. The two huge ships brushed together as the Imo reversed, and the benzol ignited. There was nothing Mackey and Medec could do about it. Staying on the boat and dying, or abandoning the ship, was the only option. Mackey and Medec rushed into lifeboats and sped away from Dartmouth.
Mackey attempted to warn other ships in the harbor about the impending threat. His efforts, however, were in vain. No one seemed to notice what was going on. The ship arrived at pier six on the Richmond waterfront at 9:00 a.m. Then Mont-Blanc went off the rails. The massive burst of energy radiated outwards. Ships were crushed and overturned. Windows smashed, factories fell, and shards of glass flew through the air like missiles. The ground shook, and some wondered if they were being attacked. The shock wave lifted noble, and when he turned around, most of the buildings had vanished. Fire erupted everywhere, and the explosion unleashed a massive tsunami that smashed Halifax and Dartmouth from the port.
One of the most powerful explosions in history occurred. Despite the awful suffering, many flocked to assist. Neighbors rescued one another from the charred ruins of their homes. Men, women, and children were taken to safety by soldiers. Hospitals were immediately built in the buildings that remained. Communities all around Nova Scotia rose to the occasion. Trains carrying nurses, physicians, firefighters, and supply began arriving in Halifax by the afternoon. Noble and his family boarded a train that was transporting survivors out of town. Doctors went from passenger to passenger, bandaging wounds and administering first aid.
Thousands of individuals have lost their homes, belongings, and jobs as a result of the disaster. At least 9000 people were hurt, and over 2000 people perished. Five Imo crew members and one Mont-Blanc crew member died. People were enraged, and they demanded answers. Germany was accused by some, while others blamed the government and the Imo. Many people pointed the finger at Mackey and Medec. Noble went on to marry and run a business. He lived in a neighborhood built on top of Richmond’s ruins. Today, a bell tower stands on top of a hill overlooking the waterfront in that neighborhood. The Driscolls, like everyone else, we’re ready to start again. Halifax is still prospering a century later. You can smell excellent seafood wafting from waterfront eateries as you walk through the streets around the port. Ferry horns will be heard, and trains will be seen transporting cargo to the massive ships stationed in the harbor. Even still, the disaster’s memory seems to reverberate in the air.
The author did incredible research into the disaster and described every minute detail. Still, I believe his main goal is to educate modern readers about the tragic fate of thousands of ordinary Halifax residents who died or suffered as a result of the explosion, as well as the incredible effort on the part of a city that was entirely unprepared for such a disaster and thousands of people who rushed to help in any way they could. This is an excellent book, which I strongly suggest to anyone outside Canada and the United States.
To analyze the book, we have explored the parts of the book that I believe are the most essential and the events that occurred at the time. These sections, I think, are necessary because the author’s intensity wants us to understand what circumstances led to such a disaster and what precautions must be taken to prevent it from happening again.
The author did an excellent job of conveying a great sense of sympathy and humanity in his writing. He displayed all of the advantages and disadvantages of the judgments made to understand the reasoning behind them. It was also a fantastic depiction of how tragedy can bring together individuals from all walks of life in care and compassion.
Bacon, John U. The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. HarperCollins, 2017.
Scanlon, T. Joseph. “Rewriting a living legend: Researching the 1917 Halifax explosion.” International journal of mass emergencies and disasters 15.1 (1997): 147-198.
Kitz, Janet. Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion & the Road to Recovery. Nimbus+ ORM, 2010.
Rostis, Adam. “One Hundred Years of Certitude? Disaster Response and Recovery since the Halifax Explosion.” The Future of Ocean Governance and Capacity Development. Brill Nijhoff, 2019. 431-435.