Military contributions to Halifax Explosion relief should be recognized, historian says
By Ryan Melanson,
“I have never seen anything on the battlefield equal to the destruction that I witnessed in Halifax today.”
Those words were written by LCol Frank Bell, then the assistant director of medical services for Military District #6, in the initial aftermath of the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917.
The disaster, caused by the collision in the Harbour of the French munitions ship Mont Blanc, loaded with 2,600 tons of explosives, and the Norwegian ship Imo, killed nearly 2,000 people, eviscerated the North End and Richmond areas of Halifax, and left as many as 10,000 badly injured and 25,000 homeless or without adequate shelter in its wake.
Yet despite the utter devastation that would shape the city and many of its residents for decades to come, recovery and relief efforts following the blast came together quickly and were remarkably well organized. One of the reasons this was able to happen was because of military personnel like Lt Col Bell. About 3,300 Army personnel were stationed in the city at the time, spread out across artillery, engineering, infantry and other support units, as well as about 1,700 in transit to and from Europe for the war effort. The small Royal Canadian Navy had a presence that included the depot ship HMCS Niobe, 10 minesweepers, two submarines, 13 auxiliary patrol vessels and other assets, and a number of Royal Navy and American ships were in the area at the time.
“Quite simply, if it were not for the more than 5,000 Canadian and British soldiers, and the large number of Canadian, British and American sailors in the city, more people would have died, more property damage would have occurred, and quite possibly, a degree of anarchy would have prevailed,” said Col (Ret’d) John Boileau, now a military historian and author of numerous books.
Boileau’s latest, titled 06.12.17. The Halifax Explosion, published by Macintyre Purcell Publishing, presents the explosion’s story, including the military role in relief efforts, in a visually interesting format accompanied by a large collection of photos, maps and illustrations. He’s been promoting the new book with a number of speaking engagements ahead of the Explosion’s 100th anniversary this week, and most recently spoke to members of the Royal United Services Institute of Nova Scotia, where his presentation put a focus on the role played by sailors and soldiers.
From the ill-fated naval crews who ventured to the collision scene to help, unaware of the volatile cargo, to the thousands of soldiers who sprang to action almost immediately, and the sailors from other ships who came to shore, military personnel were key to early rescue and aid work. About 600 members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, as well as a small number of RCN surgeons and nurses at Admiralty House, also helped ensure that medical help was available for the beginning. At the height of the relief efforts, more than 40 hospitals were in operation, many of them makeshift, and fully or partially staffed by military personnel.
Sailors and soldiers also dug through rubble for survivors, set up and administered first aid posts, collected the dead, delivered supplies like food, clothing and blankets, helped guard homes and businesses from looters, and assisted in getting the injured to hospitals, including to ships with medical facilities.
In Boileau’s view, Halifax’s role as the city most involved in the First World War effort gave it a major advantage in dealing with the horrific incident, particularly early on before help began to arrive from outside communities. First responders with Halifax police and fire services were essential, but combined numbered less than 300 personnel at the time.
“The soldiers had great numbers and they were prepared for land warfare for their entire uniformed life, and the monumental battles of the First World War gave added impetus to this training. The destruction in Halifax was in every way comparable to the devastation the war brought to European communities and war zones,” he said.
The annual commemoration ceremony in Fort Needham Memorial Park is attended by MARLANT senior leaders, and normally supported by the Stadacona Band, but military involvement is otherwise limited, and official remarks made to attendees tend not to make mention of Army and Navy contributions. Members of the city’s Halifax Explosion 100th Anniversary Advisory Committee have indicated that the role will be recognized during this year’s main ceremony, and Boileau said he’s focusing on the topic in hopes that others will raise it with the municipality as an error that should be corrected.
“This has never been formally recognized at the annual memorial service or elsewhere. It’s a bizarre oversight that has continued for far too long, and it’s been a mystery to me.”