Almost 100 years ago, there was a great explosion in the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, that wrecked the city. It was near the middle of the fourth year of World War I and, while the US had been in the War for only 8 months, Canada, as a British Dominion, had sent soldiers and sailors across the Atlantic Ocean from the start.
So, the cost of war was not new to Halifax, the major Canadian military and shipping port in the country. It had already seen ships full of soldiers leaving port and later returning, wounded and psychologically hurt. Even so, what happened on December 6, 1917, was as traumatic to the city as the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was to Honolulu and the rest of America almost exactly 24 years later.
What became called ‘the Halifax Explosion’ occurred as the result, not of an attack, but a mistake, or series of mistakes. Two ships, one heavily loaded with munitions, collided in the Halifax harbor ‘narrows’ in the early morning and caught fire. The resulting explosion of the munitions was the largest in history before the Hiroshima atomic bomb. An estimated 2000 people were killed and 9000 blinded by the blast. Thousands more were injured and homeless at the beginning of winter. Most of the residential north end of the city was levelled. To add to the difficulties of the survivors, it began to snow later.
There was an immediate response from Canadian and American communities and governments, but the most notable was that of Boston, Massachusetts, to the south of Halifax. A tradition later grew up between the two places, whereby Halifax, as well as the rest of Nova Scotia, contributed a giant tree from its forests to be transported to Boston to become the City’s official city Christmas tree. A few days ago, this year’s tree passed through the Province on its way to Boston and with it the continuing thanks of Haligonians for the support and help given by their Yankee neighbors a century ago.
If you want to read the story about the Explosion, you should pick up a copy of John U. Bacon’s The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy and Extraordinary Heroism.