Wednesday, December 13, 2017
City’s Saviours: The Military Response to the Halifax Explosion
Col. John Boileau (Ret’d)
When the Belgian relief ship Imo collided in the Narrows of Halifax Harbour with the munitions-laden Mont-Blanc at about 08:45 on the morning of December 6, 1917, it started a fire that eventually resulted in an earth-shattering explosion at 09:04:35, perhaps the largest man-made, non-nuclear explosion in history.
The public safety and emergency service organizations that exist today were unknown, the city’s fire and police departments had few members, public hospitals had only recently come into existence and private ones were small. Halifax and Dartmouth were clearly unable to cope with the scale of the disaster and emergency assistance was desperately required. Other cities and towns in Nova Scotia quickly mobilized help once word of the disaster got to them, and American assistance from Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York also was dispatched to the stricken city.
It took time to organize this response however, and in the interim it was the large number of Canadian, British and American soldiers, sailors and nursing sisters who were in the city at the time that immediately came to the city’s rescue. Among other actions, their response saved lives, prevented further destruction and stopped looting—in short, they prevented the disaster from becoming greater than it was.
Halifax’s role as the Canadian city most involved in the war effort—a function that led to the explosion in the first place—was also the main reason why the reaction to the disaster was so quick and coordinated. The important role the armed forces played in the rescue and recovery operations has never been given the formal recognition it deserves. It remains a mystery why the contributions of the servicemen and -women who offered so much in the explosion’s aftermath have never been officially acknowledged.