A devastated street in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Photo © IWM Q 71057)

100 Years Ago: The Halifax Explosion

Posted on centenarynews.com on 06 December 2017
Share |

A massive explosion killed 2,000 people in the Canadian port of Halifax on 6 December 1917, injuring thousands more and leaving many homeless.

The disaster resulted from a collision between two ships - SS Mont Blanc, loaded with high explosives bound for France, and the SS Imo, a Norwegian vessel chartered to pick up famine relief supplies for civilians in occupied Belgium.

Fire broke out on the Mont Blanc, detonating its cargo and causing the most powerful man-made explosion in history until the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945.

The force of the blast wrecked much of Halifax, the damage compounded by a tsunami. Nine thousand people were injured. Many were blinded by flying glass. A dense plume of smoke rose more than 3,600 metres above the stricken city.

Crews from British and American warships went to the rescue. Trains carrying relief teams were also dispatched to Halifax from other parts of Canada and the US to help the survivors, but a blizzard delayed their arrival. 


During the First World War, Halifax grew in importance as a naval base, and as a port supplying the Allied armies in Europe.

A pre-war ban on hazardous cargoes entering the harbour had been relaxed because of the German U-boat threat.

As a neutral ship, the Imo had to undergo inspection in Halifax before proceeding to New York to collects upplies for Belgian Relief.

Leaving port, it collided with the SS Mont Blanc in narrows linking the harbour to the open sea. Mont Blanc, loaded with a cargo of TNT, guncotton and other explosive materials, was arriving from New York in readiness to join a transatlantic convoy to France. 

Both ships were subsequently blamed for navigational errors.

Centenary Tribute
Commemorations have been taking place in Halifax today (December 6) to mark the centenary of the disaster. At 09.04am, the exact time of the explosion, ships' horns and a cannon shot sounded across across the city.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid tribute to the people of Halifax, and those who went to their aid a century ago.
In a statement, he said: "Communities across the province and country offered support, and help poured in from friends beyond our borders – from Massachusetts to Australia. Together, Nova Scotians recovered, rebuilt, and emerged stronger than before. As the 150th anniversary of Confederation draws to a close, let us reflect on this powerful example of Canadians overcoming hardship and tragedy with perseverance and compassion."

There was a catalogue of accidental explosions causing large losses of civilian life during the Great War: 

*In July 1918, 134 people died in a blast at the Chilwell ammunition factory near the UK city of Nottingham.

*Soon after America's entry into WW1 in April 1917, almost 140 workers - most of them women - were killed at a munitions plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania. Although sabotage was initially suspected, it was later suggested the explosions could have been caused by an electrical fault.

*In January 1917, fire detonated explosives at a munitions works at Silvertown in the London docks, killing 70 people.

*An explosion wrecked a shell filling factory at Barnbow, near Leeds, in December 1916 killed 35 women working there. It was the first major loss of female civilian workers in Britain.

*In Kent, more than 100 people died in April 1916 when fire detonated TNT at an explosives factory in the town of Faversham. 

*In May 1915, the British minelayer HMS Princess Irene blew up in the Medway estuary, killing more than 350 people, including 76 dockyard workers and a young child hit by flying debris onshore.

See also in Centenary News:

Canadian War Museum acquires ship's wheel from Halifax warship HMCS Niobe.

Source: Office of the Canadian Prime Minister/Wikipedia/various

Images courtesy of Imperial War Museums © IWM Q 71057

Posted by: CN Editorial Team