Think Like a Historian: Introduction to the Halifax Explosion

introduction On the morning of December 6, 1917, two ships collided in Halifax Harbour, generating an explosion that devastated the city and surrounding area. Nearly 2,000 people died, and another 9,000 were wounded. At the time, the Halifax Explosion was the largest human-made explosion in history. Halifax was a bustling port city, and played a particularly significant role during the First World War (1914–1918). Halifax served as an important destination for Allied ships travelling across the Atlantic Ocean. Ships carrying troops and supplies gathered in Halifax Harbour before setting off in a convoy (a group of ships travelling together) across the ocean to Europe. The constant presence of soldiers and the threat of shelling by German submarines (U-boats), meant that Nova Scotia was closely connected to the war in Europe. The morning of December 6 began like many other days — people prepared breakfast and went to work, children went to school, and ships moved in and out of the Harbour. But on this morning, the movement of those ships led to a deadly collision. A Norwegian ship, the SS Imo , carrying relief supplies to Belgium, began its departure from Halifax Harbour. At the same time, a French ship, the SS Mont Blanc , loaded with explosive munitions bound for the battlefields of France, was arriving. Passing through the narrow passage of the harbour, miscommunication led the two ships to collide, sparking a fire. Few people knew that the Mont Blanc was loaded with explosives and therefore few were aware of the immediate danger. Within 20 minutes, the fire aboard the Mont Blanc ignited the explosives. The detonation of nearly 2,500 tonnes of explosive materials sent a blast across the city, shattering windows, levelling buildings and taking thousands of lives. The Halifax Explosion made international news, and offers of relief came swiftly from neighbouring communities in Canada, the United States and beyond. The city rallied together to support the 6,000 people made homeless by the Explosion, and the many thousands more left without adequate shelter. Friends, family, community shelters and relief stations provided food, clothing and shelter to those who had lost everything. The state of Massachusetts played a particularly essential role, acting quickly to send trains of supplies and medical personnel, including surgeons and nurses to treat the thousands of wounded. For a more comprehensive overview of the event, please read “ Halifax Explosion ” on The Canadian Encyclopedia . Think Like a Historian: The Halifax Explosion explores the role of Halifax during the First World War, the causes and consequences of the Explosion, and the experiences of survivors so that we can better understand the perspectives of those who lived through or died as a result of the Explosion. Individual perspectives of survivors, brought to life through primary sources, reveal what it was like to be in Halifax on that fateful day. These primary sources provide a window to explore this dramatic event in Canadian history. What role did Halifax play during the war effort? Explore the wartime conditions in Halifax and assess the biggest changes the city experienced during the war. 1. Form small research groups of three or four people. Drawing on what you know, brainstorm as a group how Halifax, and how life for its residents, may have changed as a result of the war. Consider the city’s role in the war effort, as well as its geographical location, resources, residents and infrastructure. 2. In your group, generate a list of three to five things that might have changed as a result of the war. 3. Read “ Wartime C ity ” in the “ Halifax Explosion ” article on The Canadian Encyclopedia to examine how various aspects of life in Halifax changed. Add additional ideas to your list as you uncover them. 4. In your group, make a final judgment about the degree of change Halifax experienced during the First World War based on your list. Rank the degree of change on a scale from 1 to 5 (1 being a small degree of change; 5 being a large degree of change), and justify your ranking. HOW DID HALIFAX CHANGE DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR? 1. HALIFAX DURING THE FIRST WORLD WAR Olympic with Returned Soldiers , 1919, by Mr. Arthur Lismer (courtesy Canadian War Museum/19710261-0343). Teacher Tip: Halifax faced many wartime changes. Consider the following changes with your class: the threat of German U-boats, blackouts for Halifax homes and businesses out of fear of bombing, an increase of soldiers in the city, the arrival of hospital ships and the return of wounded soldiers, total war, the role of women in the war effort, and the role of children in the war effort.