University of Virginia Historical Collections at the Claude Moore Health Sciences Library

Thousands of Casualties in Halifax

Halifax Explosion Casualties Added to the Military Casualties Overwhelm the City

Halifax was covered in snow soon after the explosion.

Two different medical challenges faced Halifax in the first days after the explosion: the thousands of civilian casualties; and the thousands of wounded already in military hospitals around the city.

The Halifax Explosion injuries included many patients with large splinters of wood, metal, or glass in their bodies, hundreds with eye injuries from flying glass, and crushing injuries caused when buildings collapsed.

Civilian. Hospitals, clinics, and private doctor’s offices were immediately overwhelmed as family members and rescuers began to bring in the injured. Because many Canadian physicians were already in the military, the whole region already had a shortage, and some doctors were killed or badly injured in the explosion.

All medical professionals—doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians—and anyone with first-aid or medical training immediately began to work nonstop on the casualties, often with severe shortages of even the most basic supplies. For the first hours they worked in freezing cold buildings because the windows had been blown out. Debris was everywhere. Patients were put all over, often on floors; surgery was performed on tables and desks. In the first few hours, one hospital had no physicians and only five nurses for hundreds of patients.

Unidentified babies were taken to hospitals. Many were eventually claimed by family members, but a few were never identified and were eventually placed in orphanages.

Soldiers engaged in rescue work

Soldiers engaged in rescue work after the explosion.
Library and Archives Canada.

Military. Halifax was the major port for receiving wounded Canadian soldiers brought back from the World War I in France, where the fighting was in its fourth year. The three military receiving hospitals normally processed thousands of wounded. One was destroyed and another heavily damaged in the explosion.

Lt. Col. Frederick McKelvey Bell, assistant director of medical services for the Canadian armed forces, was responsible for the military hospitals in the Halifax area. He had already been the head of Canada’s first battlefield hospital in France from 1914 to 1916. He said that he had “never seen anything on the battlefront equal to the scenes of destruction … in Halifax.”

Damage at the extreme north end of Campbell Road

Damage at the extreme north end of Campbell Road.
Library and Archives Canada.

Injured civilians poured into the military hospitals. Many recuperating soldiers, some barely ambulatory, immediately began to help with civilian casualties and some joined search and rescue parties. A departing U.S. Navy ship returned after the explosion was heard. Its medical personnel helped on a temporary hospital ship, and the crew helped the Canadians retrieve medical supplies from damaged hospitals and ships.

Lt. Col. F. McKelvey Bell also faced a special deadline: a ship was approaching Halifax with 1,000 more wounded Canadian soldiers who would need to be moved into the military hospitals.

Total Casualties. Overall, 1611 people were identified as killed by the explosion and its aftermath.

Total Male Female
No. % No. % No. %
identified 959 60%
unidentified 242 15%
bodies known to be missing 410 25%
total 1611 100% 933 58% 678 42%
Age (years)
0-14 482 30% 264 16% 218 14%
15-40 566 35% 324 20% 242 15%
over 40 366 23% 211 13% 155 10%
not known 197 12% 134 8% 63 4%
Note: all percentages are of the total 1611 dead. Based on Laura M. MacDonald, Curse of the Narrows (New York: Walker & Company, 2005), Appendix D.

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