The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
By John U. Bacon
HarperCollins/William Morrow, 418 pages, $36.99
Ernest Barss survived the horrors of the First World War. But nothing he witnessed in the trenches of the Western Front prepared him for his first glimpse of Halifax in December, 1917, hours after a massive munitions explosion flattened wide swaths of the city.
The Richmond neighbourhood of the historic port city and naval base – a staging ground for Canadian troops and supply ships feeding the war effort in Europe – was a no man’s land of rubble and ruin. “There was not one stick or stone standing on another. Every house and building had just crumpled up and the whole was a raging mass of flames.”
“I saw some terrible scenes of desolation and ruin at the front,” he later reported to a relative, “but never … did I ever see anything so absolutely complete.”
Dec. 6 marks the 100th anniversary of the largest human-made explosion before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945. Six million pounds of explosives detonated after the munitions ship Mont-Blanc collided with another vessel in Halifax Harbour. Almost 2,000 were killed, 9,000 were injured – many were blinded when windows imploded, turning glass into shrapnel – and as many as 25,000 people were left homeless or without adequate shelter.
The devastation that confronted Barss that day was almost unprecedented in North America. Chicago’s 1871 fire destroyed a larger urban area but claimed far fewer lives. Halifax joined Johnstown, Pa., (flood, 1889), Galveston, Tex., (hurricane, 1900) and San Francisco (earthquake, 1906) on the list of the continent’s deadliest disasters.