By Melanie MacDonald, Canadian Red Cross
Halifax Herald front page
Halifax Herald front page
300 volunteers turned sheets and other linens into dressings and bandages
300 volunteers turned sheets and other linens into dressings and bandages
The Halifax YMCA was quickly converted to one of several temporary hospitals
The Halifax YMCA was quickly converted to one of several temporary hospitals restocked daily by Red Cross volunteers with medications, medical and other supplies.
One of 13 emergency “dressing stations”
One of 13 emergency “dressing stations” set up in a building that was damaged but still standing
One of several ambulances and attendants sent to Halifax thanks to funding of the American Red Cross
One of several ambulances and attendants sent to Halifax thanks to funding of the American Red Cross
Scene inside a dormitory at Saint Mary’s College - another temporary hospital site
Scene inside a dormitory at Saint Mary’s College - another temporary hospital site resupplied daily by Red Cross volunteers
Temporary office of the Medical Relief Committee
Temporary office of the Medical Relief Committee. One of its subcommittees of 34 Red Cross volunteers oversaw the twice daily resupply of 62 permanent and temporary hospitals and first aid/dressing stations
Explosion casualty being taken into St. Mary’s Boys School
Explosion casualty being taken into St. Mary’s Boys School, site of a temporary hospital set up and run by the American Red Cross
Children picking up emergency food hampers from one of several sites
Children picking up emergency food hampers from one of several sites set up to distribute relief items donated from across Canada via the Canadian Red Cross and other organizations and distributed under auspices of the Halifax Relief Committee.

In 1917, Halifax, Nova Scotia, was a bustling port and major hub for Canada's First World War effort. Its deep and ice-free harbour is closer to Europe than most on the Atlantic coast of North America and tens of thousands of Canadian, other British Empire and American troops and a steady stream of ships loaded with wartime supplies passed through Halifax to or from Europe.
 
On December 6, the deadliest disaster in Canadian history occurred. Just after 9 a.m., the French munitions ship Mont-Blanc exploded following a mid-harbour collision with the Belgian relief ship Imo. What followed was the largest human-made explosion prior to the detonation of atomic bombs in 1945. Instantly, the city’s north end was levelled by the blast and a resulting tsunami. Nearly 2,000 people died, about 9,000 were injured, 10,000 were rendered homeless and some 15,000 others had damaged or inadequate shelter.
 
The Halifax Explosion marked the first Canadian Red Cross involvement in domestic disaster relief – an activity that would become a core element of its work and continues to this day.  
 
The American Red Cross however had pioneered a domestic disaster relief program following catastrophes in the United States including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and massive fires that left thousands homeless in Chelsea and Salem, Mass., in 1908 and 1914.  As word of the Halifax explosion reached Boston, its Red Cross chapter dispatched a team of disaster relief experts to Halifax along with medical personnel and equipment, clothing and reconstruction supplies. The Canadian Red Cross quickly organized its local volunteers to work around the clock acquiring and distributing medical supplies to 62 permanent and temporary hospitals and first aid stations around the city. Red Cross branches across Canada and the United States sent money, personnel, hospital supplies and other equipment and clothing.

Within a year of the First World War ending, the federal government and Canadian Red Cross agreed in 1919 to extend the formal mandate of the Red Cross to include not just wartime relief but also peacetime response to disasters and health emergencies.
 
Close co-operation fostered between the Canadian Red Cross and American Red Cross continues to this day. Examples include Canadian Red Cross personnel sent to help in the USA after disasters such as hurricanes Sandy in 2012 and Matthew in 2016. American Red Cross teams have helped in Canada following events like record flooding in Alberta in 2013, the Fort McMurray wildfire in 2016, and forest fires in BC in 2017.
 
A century later, Disaster Management remains a flagship program of the Canadian Red Cross. Red Cross volunteers respond an average of once every three hours somewhere in Canada, whether to aid one family displaced by a house fire, or an entire neighborhood or community impacted by a large-scale disruptive event.
 
As a show of gratitude, each December, Nova Scotia sends a towering Christmas tree to light up the Boston Common. It was first done in 1919 and has been an annual tradition since 1971.

Read more stories from the Halifax Explosion and hear more about its impact on the Red Cross (video).


Interesting facts:

  • More Nova Scotians were killed in the explosion than were killed in World War I.
  • Flying glass and debris left hundreds with eye injuries. The American Red Cross covered the cost of an expert from the USA to help the Halifax School for the Blind devise programs for their short- and long-term care..
  • The shockwave produced by the explosion was the equivalent of nearly 2,700 tonnes of TNT, shattered windows 100 km away in Truro, Nova Scotia, and could be  heard in Prince Edward Island some 200 km away. 
  • The explosion destroyed 1,630 buildings and at least seven ships, and damaged another 12,000 buildings.
  • Making relief effort even more difficult, a blizzard the next morning dropped up to 40 centimeters of snow, plunged temperatures to well below freezing and its strong winds fanned still-burning fires.
  • A piece of the Mont Blanc’s anchor weighing more than a half-tonne was tossed four kilometres from the blast site and still sits today off what is now Anchor Drive in  Halifax as one of several Explosion memorial sites.
  • Halifax harbour virtually became an empty bed of mud for several seconds as water was blown away and then a  four-metre high  (13 foot) tsunami generated by the rush of ocean water to fill the void caused even more damage including ripping large ships from moorings and tossing smaller vessels like tugboats well inland.