Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Halifax: A Tragedy with a Unique Dimension

By most measures, the greatest non-nuclear explosion in history occurred in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in December 1917. The approximate casualty estimate was 2,000 killed and 9,000 wounded and blinded. More Nova Scotians died in the Halifax explosion than were killed in World War One. Out of 60,000 inhabitants, 25,000 were left homeless. So many people suffered eye injuries that the science of treating damaged eyes was advanced significantly by the newly established Canadian National Institute for the Blind. Halifax would become known as a center for caring for the blind. That story within a story is one worth recounting.

The Damage at Halifax

“City in danger. Explosion. Conflagration.” The alarm was sent by telegram to areas surrounding Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, on the morning of 6 December 1917. Relief expeditions organised from Nova Scotia, Boston, Toronto, and Montreal did not know the cause of the explosion, nor the extent of the damage. Had the Germans invaded? Was the city destroyed? Reports of casualties varied from 50 to 50 000 persons. 

In the fourth year of the First World War, Halifax was a seaport of 47,000 people, a base from which Canadian troops were sent overseas. Warships gathered in the Halifax Harbor to be refitted and supplied before sailing in convoys to Europe. For this reason, Halifax was a prime target for the Germans, and many believed that they had attacked. However, the explosion was caused by an accidental collision between two vessels.

The Mont Blanc Explodes
At 08:48 hrs a French freighter, the Mont Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Belgian relief ship, as a result of navigational error in the Halifax Harbor. The Mont Blanc carried 3121 tons of picric acid, 200 tons of trinitrotoluene, 35 tons of benzol and 10 tons of gun cotton.  The benzol drums ignited, with flames and smoke rising 2000 feet into the sky. Women and men went to their windows, and children walking to school stopped on the street to watch the blazing fire. After 17 minutes the ship blew up with a force that launched the hull over 1000 feet into the air, destroying everything within a 2.5 km radius and shattering every window in the city. The force of the explosion was estimated at three kilotons.  A great number of the spectators — especially those watching what they thought was another ship fire from behind glass windows in their homes on the hill overlooking the harbor — received shards of glass in their eyes. Thus, an extra tragic dimension was added to the disaster —  its huge number of ophthalmic injuries. 

Finding the injured was the initial challenge.  George H Cox, an eye, ear, nose and throat (EENT) specialist from New Glasgow, a town 100 km away, joined the relief expedition.  Eleven Nova Scotian doctors with nurses and volunteers reached Halifax that evening to find the city in ruins. “We had to make our way along streets and tracks blocked and covered with debris of all sorts. . .every here and there dead men on piles of black stuff. The whole area was darkened by smoke or lit up by flames from the burning debris.”

In the ruins Dr. Cox and his colleagues discovered that an inordinate number of penetrating eye injuries occurred. The severity and the overwhelming number of eye injuries sustained that day made it impossible for lengthy eye‐saving procedures to be performed. Enucleation,  the removal of the eye that leaves the eye muscles and remaining orbital contents intact, was often the only option. Twelve ophthalmologists treated 592 people with eye injuries and performed 249 enucleations. Sixteen people had both eyes enucleated. Most of the eye injuries were caused by shards of shattered glass. 

The Halifax explosion sparked an outpouring of community support for survivors who were blind or partially sighted and served as a catalyst for the formation of one of Canada’s oldest charities, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Sources: Mostly excerpted from "The Halifax disaster (1917): eye injuries and their care." British Journal of Ophthamology, June 2007; "Halifax: December 6, 1917" by Andrew Melomet, St. Mihiel Trip-Wire, April 2010 .



  1. Horrifying -- and fascinating. Thanks for sharing a story I knew little about.

  2. Not everything within a 2.5 km radius was destroyed. The French telegraph cable station was only a few hundred metres from the point of the explosion, and it remains standing to this day - part of a defence establishment and treated as a historic building.

  3. An explosion of near atomic proportions followed by a tsunami (caused by the explosion) and then a massive snow storm. A horrifying and epic episode in Western history. Reviews of two DVDs on this topic were published in the December 2007 issue of the St. Mihiel Trip-Wire: