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

Halifax Holds On following the Explosion

The Canadian Military and the Halifax Relief Committee Respond to the Crisis

St. Joseph’s Convent damaged in the explosion.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

December 6 and 7, 1917

The Halifax Explosion happened because the city played a vital role in World War I—but the military presence was also one of the city’s greatest resources afterward. The thousands of military personnel with their supplies and well-established planning for crises made a significant difference in the city’s ability to cope.

Within an hour of the explosion, hundreds of soldiers were already searching the rubble for survivors. Soon others were beginning makeshift repairs to damaged hospitals and buildings that had been turned into shelters and emergency medical clinics. Lines of soldiers carried buckets of water to hospitals that had no water. Military kitchens were set up to begin feeding the homeless and relief workers. The army set up aid stations throughout the city where patients could be triaged, some receiving first aid and others sent to hospitals.

The Halifax Relief Committee. By 11:30, only two hours after the explosion, a meeting of officials and other citizens at City Hall created the Halifax Relief Committee that would directly respond to the crisis in coming weeks. The Deputy Mayor, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, the Chief of Police, a former mayor, and several city council members formed the committee. (The Fire Chief and Deputy Chief had died when the ship exploded, and the Mayor was out of town.) They immediately set up five working committees—transportation, food, housing, finance, and mortuary—and began to find people to serve on them.

Food. Even before this meeting, Halifax citizens in undamaged areas began to deliver food and supplies to City Hall. Farmers, food dealers, and ordinary citizens began to drop off food supplies of all kinds. These were later sorted into usable packets and delivered throughout the damaged areas by volunteers, many of them teen–aged boys from the military cadet programs. Some of the food went to the homeless who began to settle into tents being set up for them in public areas, some went to people able to remain in their damaged homes, while some was sent to volunteer workers and hospitals throughout the city.

Equipment. Many people immediately donated their trucks and cars, horses and wagons. Later the committee began to seize vehicles for emergency service. Throughout the day people donated equipment and supplies of all kinds, in addition to joining work groups.

Newspaper headlines about the explosion

Newspaper headline from Dec. 8, 1917.
Library and Archives Canada.

News. Newspapers began to print notices and short editions by Friday morning, 24 hours after the explosion. The newspapers issued broadsheets (poster–sized sheets) that were distributed through the city, including the damaged areas. The posters gave vital information about such arrangements as where the morgue had been set up, which hospitals were operating, and where food was being distributed, as well as lists of the dead, missing, and surviving. These notices were vital communications in the first days of the crisis. Newspapers whose presses were not damaged began to issue daily editions that included information about news from the Relief Committee and columns of notices from family members trying to find each other.

Further Information: