As the initial response played out, deputy mayor Henry Colwell (the mayor was out of town) knew help was needed to organize rescue efforts and make longer-range plans for survivors, soon to face the privations of winter. And to identify and bury the dead.
Colwell turned to the military; 5,000 army personnel were stationed at the garrison, and there were hundreds of naval crew on ships and shore.
“For the Garrison, the explosion was in some ways their finest hour…and they proved their mettle under conditions as trying as anything experienced by their battle-hardened comrades,” wrote James F.E. White in The Garrison Response to the Halifax Disaster, 6 December, 1917.
Bodies removed from the rubble are transported to morgues by sled.
[Library of Congress / LC-B2- 4444-8]
Colwell appealed to Colonel W.E. Thompson, commander of the No. 6 Military District Headquarters, who immediately ordered tents to be set up to accommodate survivors and sent soldiers out to help with rescue efforts. Within the hour, troops were distributing blankets to warm the naked and wounded, providing axes and shovels and labour for the rescue effort, and later commandeering vehicles for hospital runs.
Soldiers and sailors, many themselves injured, working “in utter disregard for their own safety, immediately started pulling people out of the ruins of their homes,” a soldier from Philadelphia, in Halifax to volunteer for the Irish Guards, recalled in The Garrison Response. Not one in his group needed a command “to go to the rescue of their fellow human beings in that hour of dire disaster.”
Early in the afternoon, extra help arrived from the Americans: the mushroom cloud had been seen more than 50 kilometres at sea, and US ships Tacoma and Von Steuben rushed to help. Their captains volunteered their 1,200 men for rescue, relief and guard duty.
Carl Moulton was among 150 army recruits immediately marshalled for rescue work, as reported in John G. Armstrong’s The Halifax Explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy: Inquiry and Intrigue. “We worked among the ruins for hours, had to improvise stretchers and take the injured to tugs and other boats to be carried to the hospital ships…. There was little confusion, for the military took hold of the situation,” he wrote to his girlfriend who was back home in Connecticut.
To thank the Boston Red Cross and Massachusetts for their generous relief efforts in 1917, Nova Scotia sent a Christmas tree to Boston in gratitude. Another was sent in 1971 and every year since. It is a tradition of goodwill, friendship and remembrance.
“Wherever there were soldiers, there was organization,” wrote Metson, who reserved his highest praise for those convalescing from the battlefields of Europe. “They gave up their beds in the hospitals and served as nurses and stretcher-bearers. Men who were not fit to work at all ‘carried on’ until they literally dropped.”
Ralph Proctor, 20, had suffered two destroyed vertebrae, a leg injury and a lung wound at Vimy Ridge. He dug his car out from the ruins of his garage, found help to move a chimney blocking the road, then began collecting the injured and delivering them to hospital, driving over wreckage, travelling part of the day on flat tires, even persevering when beams from a burning building fell across the car. He carried on for 13 hours, despite the reopening of his lung wound. “There was nothing else to do,” Metson quoted him as saying. He toiled 11 hours more on Friday and worked through Saturday. He finally halted Sunday when his car broke down, and he fainted.
Pine coffins are stacked by the roadside at the intersection of Argyle and George streets.
[Halifax Relief Commission Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1976-166 no. 64 / negative: N-4273]
Overnight, a blizzard hit, leaving snow in waist-deep drifts. “Troops now had the added tasks of shovelling snow to try to keep a passageway open and of digging through deep drifts covering the ruins to find what lay underneath,” wrote Janet. F. Kitz in Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and The Road to Recovery. Troops were assigned to recover bodies well into January. They also did guard duty, strictly controlling who was allowed into the devastated area, and were instructed to shoot looters.
As these events played out, longer-term plans were being made. Colwell, police chief Frank Hanrahan, former mayor Robert MacIlreith, Lieutenant Governor MacCallum Grant and others in public office met at 11:30 a.m., just two hours after the explosion. They established committees to handle transportation, food, shelter, donations, reconstruction—and began work that day. The Halifax Relief Committee was formally constituted on Dec. 9, eventually overseeing a dozen subcommittees.
The shelter committee opened an office at city hall to match those needing and those offering accommodations, and committee members began patrolling for people in need. The finance committee secured a line of credit at the Bank of Nova Scotia, which eventually donated $100,000 to the relief fund (worth approximately $1.9 million today). A food bank was set up at city hall.
The mortuary committee was headed by MacIlreith, who had been in office when the city dealt with the identification and burial of victims of the RMS Titanic’s sinking five years earlier. The committee was set up in a damaged school after military engineers had cleaned up the debris and covered the broken windows. Later, military personnel were tasked with cleaning the faces of the dead so they could be identified, and digging graves in the cemeteries. The Princess Louise Fusiliers played the funeral march on Dec. 17 at the burial of several unidentified dead.
Civilian and military officials worked together from the start. A city council meeting at 3 p.m. on the day of the blast was attended by garrison commander Major-General Thomas Benson and Rear-Admiral Chambers, the port convoy officer.
The conference was “held in the shattered town hall amidst splintered woodwork and floors covered with broken glass,” Chambers reported to the admiralty. Some of those present “had been at work since the explosion without even an opportunity to ascertain whether their nearest and dearest were in safety.” He left the meeting with the impression that “what could be done would be done.”
The legion of injured posed an immediate problem. The area’s four civilian and four military hospitals, as well as seven private hospitals and infirmaries, were almost immediately overwhelmed, despite the help of surgeons and medical teams from ships in the harbour and local doctors working in their own homes, stitching, tending burns, setting broken bones and other procedures.
An emergency relief hospital was set up in the Y.M.C.A., Barrington Street, Halifax
[Lola Henry / Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-7024]
“There were very few in the city whose face and hands were not cut with flying glass that came with the force of bullets,” soldier Alex Chisholm wrote to his parents. “We would go into a tottering house and find a wounded person pinned under some boards or beams with broken legs or arms, and some of them bleeding to death…. All the hospitals were soon filled and there was no place to take the wounded.”
St. Mary’s College, a boy’s school, was turned into a hospital where these children were treated.
[Courtesy William James / City of Toronto Archives / 1244-1782]
Anyone with first-aid knowledge was pressed into service. Crew and passengers from the newly arrived overnight train from Saint John, N.B., used emergency tools to dig people out, water from the engines to wash wounds and sheets from sleeping cars as bandages. When the train pulled out again at 1:30 p.m., it was filled with injured evacuated to Truro.
“Management of the wounded...was a triumph for the Military Medical Service in Canada,” wrote Sir Andrew MacPhail in his 1925 official history of the service. “All military hospitals were instantly opened to civilian patients and the district medical stores supplied every need.”
Within 10 hours, wrote MacPhail, army engineers, the ordnance corps and medical service personnel, with help from American sailors, transformed an officers’ mess into a fully equipped hospital for the Massachusetts Medical Unit of the U.S. National Guard. It even had a kitchen. Such co-operation similarly transformed the USS Old Colony into a floating hospital; its surgeons treated 150 on the first day.
After a tour of the wreckage, military engineer Colonel Paul Weatherbe established dressing stations, a dispensary and a medical supply depot (subsequently managed by the Red Cross).
Lieutenant-Colonel Frank McKelvey Bell, chair of the medical relief committee, told a reporter he had never seen anything on the battlefields of France to compare with the devastation in Halifax. He was with the first medical unit to serve in France, and was experienced in working during emergencies. He oversaw the establishment of emergency hospitals by the Canadian Army Medical Corps, the distribution of military medical stores, and a system for allocating patients to hospitals. Within the first 48 hours, Bell later reported, “practically every patient in the city, in hospital or in houses, had received at least some medical care.” Camp Hill Hospital alone admitted 1,400 patients on the first day, although it had only 280 beds, reported Bell—and it still had nearly 350 patients on Christmas Eve.
The medical corps, engineers and ordnance corps were also involved in establishing eight emergency hospitals, including facilities for out-of-province medical teams that began arriving by train on Saturday: the Bellevue building housed the Massachusetts Medical Unit; the Halifax Ladies’ College hosted the State of Maine Unit; the Bellevue and Halifax Infirmary was cleaned up for a group from Rhode Island.
Trains were organized to transport wounded to hospitals in Truro and New Glasgow, N.S. Medical teams went door-to-door to tend the wounded in some neighbourhoods.
Civilian and military doctors and nurses in Halifax were augmented by more than 200 volunteer surgeons and more than 450 nurses who came from across the province, Canada and the northeastern United States, as well as military medical officers and nursing sisters from nearby military districts and 200 orderlies who had been waiting to ship out to Europe.
Medical relief workers arrive by train.
[Nathaniel N. Morse / Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-7080]
Emergency shelters were urgently needed, especially as temperatures started to plummet with the overnight blizzard. In some hospitals, whole families shared a mattress, while some people slept on the floor under beds. Friends, relatives, neighbours and strangers opened their doors to the homeless.
Women from Africville survey the damage.
[Nathaniel N. Morse / Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-7080]
Emergency shelters were set up in the Salvation Army Citadel, theatres, church halls, meeting halls, a monastery, and a bunkhouse of an oil company in Dartmouth. The shelter committee at city hall matched those needing a place to stay with those offering one.
Niobe provided cots and blankets for 50 families sheltering in the Knights of Columbus Hall. Nearby military districts supplied stretchers, straw mattresses, blankets, sheets and pillowcases. Alas, due to the blizzard, the hastily erected tent city Thompson had ordered went mostly unused.
Hundreds of tents were set up for survivors left homeless.
Along with all the medical volunteers and donated supplies, 40 cities offered shelter for the homeless, and donations of goods and money poured in. The Halifax Relief Commission, established by the dominion government under the War Measures Act in January, handled nearly $30 million (worth half a billion dollars today) in financial donations, including $18 million from the Canadian, British and American governments. Money poured in from other countries and provinces and from states, cities, towns, villages and individuals.
Food for the soup kitchens came in from farms and restaurants. Everything needed to re-establish a household— stoves and furnaces, clothing and furniture, linens and cutlery`—were donated. The Halifax-Massachusetts Relief Committee warehouse and Sir John Eaton’s supply depot gave the dispossessed free supplies.
Furniture, goods and money poured in from neighbouring provinces and states. Massachusetts contributed $750,000 worth.
[Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-7012]
Experienced in military camp construction, Colonel Robert Smith Low, soon to head up the reconstruction committee, was tasked with emergency repairs and providing temporary accommodation. Military and civilian crews worked feverishly in the cold to repair houses that could be inhabited and build emergency shelters. The military commandeered supplies of tarpaper, used to cover gaping windows, to prevent profiteers from buying it all up, thus ensuring it was fairly distributed. Military and civilian crews covered windows with tarpaper and beaver board and installed glass once it became available. A sash and door factory 65 kilometres away in Windsor, N.S., was taken over by military engineers to facilitate quick delivery of windows to Halifax.
Offices under construction for the Halifax Relief Commission near Sackville Street and Bell Road.
[Halifax Relief Commission Nova Scotia Archives accession no. 1976-166 / negative: N-6265]
Low appealed to anyone who had worked with him building army camps in Quebec, Manitoba, Ontario and Alberta to come help with reconstruction work. Soon he was head of an army of tradesmen who managed in one month to put up 44 buildings containing nearly 400 apartments—enough to house nearly 1,000—with more to come.
Temporary housing under construction near Almon and Robie streets.
[Charles Vaughan / Nova Scotia Archives / negative: N-7046]
It took years to rebuild the neighbourhood (no longer called Richmond); its destroyed houses, businesses and factories had to be reconstructed and—often—relocated. It was a massive job requiring effort of individual citizens, local businesses and every level of government.
Permanent replacement of destroyed military and naval buildings was also slow, but emergency repairs and construction happened quickly, because the port was too valuable for the war effort to be out of commission for long.
A funeral was held for soldiers and sailors on Dec. 11, just before the first convoy for the front, originally scheduled to leave the day after the explosion, sailed, escorted by Highflyer.
Funeral services for the unidentified bodies drew thousands of mourners.
[City of Toronto Archives]
Those first 10 days of rescue and recovery efforts were practically superhuman, but much more lay ahead before Canada’s most important wartime port would be fully functional again. As sailor Bert Griffith wrote to his wife on Dec. 16, “We’ll be working pretty near night and day for a long time yet.”
The scars remain to this day: in monuments to victims peppering the city, and the sorry harvest of metal and glass from gardens and construction sites.