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The Heroines of Halifax and The World’s Greatest Explosion

In 1917, a ship collision caused the biggest accidental blast the world has ever seen. While the city’s male leaders dithered, a band of volunteer nurses leapt into action.

The Heroines of Halifax and The World’s Greatest Explosion

Just after 9 a.m. on December 6, 1917, 35-year-old nurse Clara MacIntosh was lying in bed, willing herself to get up. Just as she readied herself to start the day, the windows in her bedroom imploded, coating her bedsheets in glass. A distant blast reverberated alongside gusts of cold as the front door flew off its hinges, and the maid downstairs screamed into the echo of the detonation. Clara jolted from her blankets and the debris that now coated them. 

Running down the steps, she met the maid in the empty door frame, staring out on to the city Commons, where trees laid ripped up by the roots. Tar, ash and melted iron fell from the sky in thick dregs like black rain. Flames had sprung up all along the shoreline, and ruined houses burned along the horizon. Staring out at this wreckage, Clara assumed that the war in Europe had found its way to the east coast of Canada. But she had little time to ponder what had caused the explosion, or assess the damage implicated by the broken glass and splintered wood scattered on the floor of her home. As she pulled a housecoat over her nightgown in the unseasonably mild air, a slow trickle of wounded people began making their way toward her.

For kids growing up in Halifax, the disaster is a story we can tell by rote: The city was the site of the largest man-made explosion before Hiroshima. One winter morning during World War I, a Belgian relief ship, the SS Imo, and a French freighter, the SS Mont-Blanc, crossed paths in the narrowest part of the harbor.

Clara MacIntosh, member of the Victorian Order of Nurses, which helped establish the Relief Commission after the Halifax explosion in 1917. (Photo courtesy SFU Library Digital Collections. Canada’s Early Women Writers. Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC, Canada. 1980-2014)

Unbeknownst to anyone but the Mont-Blanc’s crew and the harbormaster, the ship, which was bound for Europe, carried 2,925 tons of explosives, and its deck was stacked with drums of airplane fuel. To avoid catching the attention of German submarines, the Mont-Blanc was not flying a red flag to indicate that it carried explosives.

The Imo, in a hurry, was traveling on the eastern side of the harbor’s narrows, the wrong side for an outgoing ship. To make matters worse, according to John U. Bacon, author of The Great Halifax Explosion, the harbor had been a crowded chaos since the beginning of the war.

Earlier in 1917, the Halifax commander had warned that an accident was inevitable, writing, “It is not possible to regulate the traffic in the harbor, and it is submitted that I cannot in this regard accept the responsibility for any accident occurring.”

As the ships attempted to pass one another, the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc, causing the fuel to spill and ignite. The Mont-Blanc’s crew fled in lifeboats bound for the city of Dartmouth across the water, shouting to anyone in earshot that an explosion was coming, while the freighter drifted ablaze toward the Halifax shore. 

After burning for long enough to attract crowds of sailors working on the docks and curious children delaying their arrival at school, the ship exploded. The blast’s shock wave briefly revealed the bottom of the harbor and shattered windows throughout the cities of Halifax and Dartmouth and the city of Truro, 60 miles away. An estimated 2,000 people were killed instantly, and another 9,000 were injured; 25,000 were left homeless, and many were trapped beneath the rubble of their homes or workplaces. The community of Richmond, closest to the blast, was decimated. Though fires burned across the city, all but one of the members of the crew responsible for Halifax’s lone fire truck had been killed while attempting to extinguish the Mont-Blanc

Clara MacIntosh was among the ranks of the reduced force of health care professionals left in Halifax, with nearly one in four men in the city away serving in the war. Clara had begun serving in the Victorian Order of Nurses almost immediately after earning her nursing degree. In the years leading up to 1917, she and her colleagues had sought to help women in the North End of the city whose husbands were fighting the war.

The column of smoke raised by the Halifax explosion, December 6, 1917. (Photo courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

As historian Suzanne Morton writes, they ran a milk station for new mothers and their babies near Richmond with the support of Clara’s husband, George, who was a doctor. The Victorian Order made home visits too, and it was this more than anything else that had created tension between the nurses and the doctors left in the city, some of whom felt that the nurses were stepping on the toes of the “professionals.” But the men who had attempted to curb the nurses’ activities should hardly have been surprised that the community preferred to deal with the nurses than with them, as the head of the Victorian Order in Canada had suggested in a letter to Clara.

Rather than patronizing mothers in the cold environment of the clinic as male doctors did, Clara and the other nurses combined health education and practical nursing advice and met people in their homes. They were at bedsides when they were needed, they gave demonstrations, and they helped with tasks that their patients recognized and respected as real work.

The war also meant that young women across the city had rushed to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment of the St. John’s Ambulance, so that they could receive basic medical training to assist with returning casualties. While some were disappointed that they were not serving overseas, they were nevertheless busy assisting in understaffed medical wards and supporting convalescing soldiers.

Clara’s brother, Reginald Harris, had been appointed as superintendent of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) brigade in Nova Scotia, and, as historian Linda J. Quiney notes, Clara had agreed to be superintendent of the lady division. In reality, Clara did much of the work of organizing the whole operation, in the face of paternalistic condescension toward the volunteers from much of the medical community.

Even her brother, Reginald, was somewhat dismissive of the VADs, privately writing to his friend that their work and capabilities were quite modest, but since they were enthusiastic they should be given something to do. Clara knew better, having seen how capable these young women were. She had witnessed firsthand the rigorous work of VADs like Florence Murray, who at 23 would soon be one of the few women to matriculate from Dalhousie University’s medical school.

Nurses from the Victorian Order of Nurses (VON) leaving the Montreal branch building to go out into the district for their home visits, 1910. (Photo courtesy of Library and Archives Canada)

That December, Clara had expected both nurses and volunteers to rise to the task of treating seasonal flu, advising on prenatal care, and rehabilitating injured men. She hadn’t, however, expected them to live through a man-made medical disaster that would put Halifax in the history books. Nor had the VADs who had volunteered in droves to support the returning soldiers expected to spend the winter serving on the front lines of a crisis at home.

By the time George arrived home from Camp Hill Hospital at 9:45 a.m., Clara had the whole house, including the furnace room, filled with burned and bleeding patients on makeshift beds of rugs and blankets. While some patients arrived covered in ash and suffering from shock but otherwise well, others had expended the little energy they had on making their way to the house, and had collapsed on the floor from blood loss upon arrival.

Clara ordered some of the walking wounded to board the windows against the cold, while she dressed injuries, controlled hemorrhages, and treated shock. People’s bodies bore evidence of what they had been doing in the last moments before the blast: burns from wood fires that had been toppled as they were being lit, eyes blinded by glass from the windows through which they’d been watching their children retreat to school. One young woman arrived with her body and clothes completely covered in oil and blood, insisting to Clara that she wasn’t injured. After a quick examination, Clara agreed and drew her a bath, and after this and a cup of tea, she set her to work sweeping up plaster and glass.

Nurses preparing bandages for emergency relief after the explosion, December 1917. (Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

Clara sent out a call for the Voluntary Aid Detachment to report to the nearest hospital, only to learn that of 129 VADs, all but 18 had already begun delivering medical aid across the city, in many instances despite their own injuries, the loss of family members, or the loss of their homes.

Florence Murray was one such VAD. She had run into the street after hearing a blast “like all thunders rolled in one” and feeling the house where she was boarding in the South End begin to shake as though it might crumble. Outside, she found the remnants of shattered windows up and down the street. She guessed that the city was under attack, and although her thoughts went first to her family, she quickly made her way to Buckley’s drugstore. If the damage she’d surveyed could tell her anything, it was that there was going to be immediate need for medical assistance. She had been training for this since she started medical school four years earlier, despite having been discouraged by nearly everyone around her.

At the drugstore, she stepped through the broken shop front and began to gather bandages and empty pill bottles to fill with iodine to disinfect wounds. The streets were in chaos, and it wasn’t long before a man came in supporting a woman covered in blood, calling for help. Florence helped lower her into a chair, tracking the shock on the woman’s face, which was spouting blood from a badly severed artery. This was, Florence knew, more than she could fix on the floor of a decimated pharmacy. There was a danger that the woman would bleed to death right there, but Florence got to work disinfecting and dressing the wound before firmly directing the pair to go to the hospital immediately. 

Emergency relief hospital in the YMCA, Barrington Street, Halifax. (Photo courtesy of Lola Henry Nova Scotia Archives 1979-237)

Other VADs across the city also quickly put their training into practice. Dorothy MacLennan was on the deck of the Halifax-Dartmouth Ferry, on her way to work at the Royal Bank, watching the burning Mont-Blanc when the explosion struck. After finding herself on the floor gazing up at waves of black smoke, she realized that she was surrounded by broken glass and people who had emerged from the cabin clutching wounds. She pulled herself up and began to treat their injuries. 

Six of the nurses of the Victorian Order, whose household visits had been so scrutinized by men who doubted their professionalism, were already in Richmond treating the injured on the streets, and in some cases rescuing them from the rubble of their homes, having been out on duty when the blast struck.

Amidst the noise of Clara’s makeshift clinic, a soldier arrived, shouting that a second blast was imminent. As Laura M. Mac Donald relates in her book Curse of the Narrows, officers had organized to dig people out of the rubble. Lt. C.A. McLennan had heard that flames were building near the Wellington Barracks where explosives were held, and soldiers began to warn the public they should move south. Clara, George and the soldier started to move patients from the house to the open grounds of the nearby Commons, carrying the most gravely wounded on rugs and blankets. (Lieutenant McLennan acted quickly and was ultimately able to prevent a detonation at the barracks.) 

Soldiers engaged in rescue work. (Photo courtesy of Canada. Dept. of National Defence/Library and Archives Canada)

While Clara and George were moving patients as close to safety as they could, the VADs determinedly carried on throughout the city. Both Florence Murray and Dorothy MacLennan had by this time arrived at Camp Hill Hospital. As author Joyce Glasner relates, this newly built convalescent hospital for returning soldiers was not quite complete; it lacked an operating room and was short on pain medication. Designed for 280 patients, it now held an estimated 1,500 severely injured people, treated by harried doctors, nurses and volunteers. 

Dorothy had joined the VAD because in the midst of the war, she wanted to do something to help. But she never could have prepared for the hallways packed with injured people, or the many children that had been separated from their parents in the discord that followed the explosion. She steadied herself and began opening doors, looking for supplies. Instead, she found a room of 40 people who had been waiting for help. Looking around, Dorothy realized with a jolt that no one else was coming, and she began the slow work of removing glass and shrapnel, dressing wounds, and making splints. 

As one of the only surgeons available for duty, George also returned to Camp Hill, where he soon encountered Florence, who welcomed the sight of a friendly face — and another pair of hands. Florence had pushed her way through hordes of people bearing the injured in wagons, on stretchers and in their arms, and she was struck by the “organisation without any organisation.”

Without anyone giving directives, somehow everyone still seemed to know what to do, including the convalescing soldiers she had helped care for just weeks before, who were now shifting mattresses to make space for the flood of arriving wounded. While some of the people who now crowded around them in the hospital needed less urgent treatment for minor cuts and burns, others bore injuries worse than those of the woman Florence had treated in the pharmacy. Many women who had been at home tending to breakfast had severe scalds across their bodies from falling onto their stoves. One woman Florence found lying on a mattress in the corridor had had her face sliced down to the bone and was calling for f while awaiting emergency surgery.

St. Mary’s Hospital after the Halifax explosion. (Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

Except there were no tools.

George sent Florence to the kitchen for something, anything, that might be suitable for operating. Trained by Clara on how to improvise care in emergencies, Florence returned with her hands full of kitchen knives, as well as every other utensil she guessed the doctor might be able to wield. The floors of the wards were soon lined with mattresses, and patients shivered from the cold as the broken windows and doors rattled on their hinges. Florence searched for hot water bottles but found none, so she heated bricks to ward off the chill for those who seemed most in need, like the mother and baby she found soaking wet and freezing, waiting for their turn with a doctor.

Florence soon found herself responsible for rationing morphine, walking down halls filled with people in excruciating pain who kept directing her to others they thought needed it more, while she swallowed her frustration that there was not enough to go around. While moving amongst the patients, Florence learned that her aunt and uncle’s house had been destroyed, and her aunt was missing and feared dead. She felt an impulse to go search for her, but instead turned back to the people who desperately needed help right in front of her.

Clara delivered aid on the Commons for several hours. Among other injuries, she treated a patient of George’s who found Clara and held out her arm, asking if it was broken. Clara carefully took the woman’s hand, and found that a long piece of jagged glass had entered her arm at the wrist and was protruding up to her elbow. Speaking to the patient to distract her, Clara swiftly extracted the glass. 

There was little time for Clara to catch her breath. Once it seemed that the soldiers on the Commons had established an efficient system for first aid, she made her way to overwhelmed Camp Hill, where she watched the VADs she had trained work calmly under circumstances that none of them could have imagined. While others, her brother among them, had doubted what these women were capable of, seeing them at the hospital only affirmed for Clara how important they were to the community. 

Makeshift hospital in a gymnasium. (Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

Clara went to the kitchen looking for milk to bring to a patient and found that every table was being used for operations. She remained there, flagging down two VADs and instructing them to assist with hypodermics. On the way back upstairs, Clara found a man lying in a hallway corridor, screaming out as the floods of passing people shook the edges of his mattress, sending pain shooting through his shattered leg. She knew she could do little to set his wound, but she carefully pulled his mattress into one of the wards and positioned it under a bed, where he was sheltered from the constant movement within the hospital.

Hearing from the VADs and nurses who had been to Richmond, Clara could not shake the feeling that many more injured people were still in their homes without care. House calls in Richmond over the years had taught her that its residents might be disinclined to go to the hospital or might assume that other people needed aid more than they did. People might also wish to stay in their homes, no matter how damaged, if they believed authorities might not allow them to return. She tried to bring the issue to the attention of the deputy mayor, calling his office to no avail, and it was still on her mind when she returned home to bed around midnight, where a never-ending stream of the injured continued to arrive, walking through the space where the front door had been.

The next morning, December 7, Clara trudged through the snow to city hall to propose a plan for community medical relief. She arrived to find the building badly damaged: Its doors creaked on their hinges, and the already drafty interior was chilled by continuous gusts of wind and drizzle coming through the broken windows.

A few hours earlier, Clara had called Agnes Dennis, established Halifax suffragist, president of the Local Council of Women and the Nova Scotia Red Cross Society, and fellow member of the Victorian Order of Nurses, to suggest that she could organize the VADs and nurses to go door-to-door and treat the wounded. Agnes heard her concerns and invited her to come to a meeting at city hall at 11 a.m. and “offer [her] services.”

And so Clara found herself, out of her element, sitting with the powerful Archdeacon Armitage, whom she knew from church, waiting for the meeting to begin. The room was full of politicians who were meant to be putting together a disaster response plan, as well as prominent citizens who perceived themselves to be integral to this effort. Most of those in attendance were men who made no effort to hide their displeasure at the fact that any ladies were there at all. Clara was friendly with some of the few other women present, including Agnes, but while Agnes, the daughter of a senator, was among the city’s elite, Clara had always found herself a bit at odds with this group. In particular, she resented the way the women of Halifax’s upper class often attempted to take over community projects run by the Victorian Order of Nurses and the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

The Duke of Devonshire, Governor General of Canada, addressing the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) staff after the Halifax Explosion, December 21, 1917. (Photo courtesy of W.G. MacLaughlan/Library and Archives Canada)

Clara was willing to speak up when it was necessary to do so, but she was shy of crowds, and this one wasn’t particularly welcoming. She was grateful for the company of Archdeacon Armitage, who seemed to be at ease with everyone. As city officials began by sharing letters of sympathy and support, she felt a sense of angry urgency. While nurses across the city were caring for an untold number of patients with insufficient supplies, telegrams praising Halifax’s forbearance were being read aloud to enthusiastic applause. She shifted impatiently in her chair, feeling as though the telegram reading would go on forever, wondering when they would get to the planning. Archdeacon Armitage, next to her, encouraged her to speak up.

When it seemed like the meeting was almost over, she swallowed her nerves and stood. She announced that the VADs were already on duty in the community, and she proposed that relief groups be organized immediately to visit homes and help people who would not come to the hospitals. Her suggestion was met with silence, as though she had not spoken at all. Clara waited for someone to second her motion or confirm that it was accepted, but it didn’t happen. Finally, she turned uncertainly to Archdeacon Armitage and asked, “Am I to go on with this work?” As the rest of the people at the meeting began talking amongst themselves, he encouraged her to go ahead.

Over the next four days, Clara would organize a team of volunteers to deliver medical treatment, gather information about those killed, injured and missing, and distribute resources. More than 70 VADs were on duty in hospitals, and 30 in the community, over the first 24 hours. Under Clara’s direction, the women organized to cover 58 streets, where they walked among wrecked houses and through drifts of snow. In Richmond, they held impromptu clinics, reporting severe injuries back to Clara, bringing food and blankets, and helping to look for missing family members. They also relieved Victorian Order nurses who had been run off their feet. 

Women looking at debris from the explosion. (Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

One nurse at the naval hospital was amazed by the efficiency and dependability of a young VAD assigned to help, describing her as an absolute “brick.” With Clara’s guidance, Florence, Dorothy and their peers worked continuously, for days, in the hospitals and throughout the community. Florence, her own hands aching from picking glass from wounds, marveled at how the hospitals were filled by a continuous flow of people, patients shivering in the hallways, the dead and living lying together. She also learned that her aunt had indeed been killed in the blast, and she ached to go to her niece and nephew, who had managed to survive without injury. But Florence remained at her post.

The VADs found themselves responsible for necessary tasks that would otherwise have gone undone: creating ways to feed and give water to people whose mouths were so badly wounded that it was too painful to eat, advocating for doctors to operate on those whose broken bodies had been written off as lost causes. Between aiding in operations and dressing wounds, they also kept the professional nurses running on coffee, bread and butter. VAD Daisy Shrum found herself with the unwelcome task of a 20-hour shift at the morgue, frustrated that she was unable to help everyone, but calm, despite witnessing what Clara would later call “scenes that baffled description.”

As a student who arrived at city hall to volunteer would later report, he found the council office full of women, and the phone ringing off the hook, while “the civic authorities were spinning around like headless poultry, holding frequent meetings but not apparently getting anywhere.” And worse, while trying to determine the best way to get a group of nurses to one of the hospitals, the volunteers were “considerably hindered by the inebriation of one of the city officials.” 

Clara and the VADs, however, continued to work out of the office until December 10, when the city officials and prominent citizens who had been continuing to meet while Clara and the nurses worked, established what would become known as the Halifax Relief Commission. At that point, Clara and the few left in the council chamber “relinquished it to the city officials, and the remnants of the original relief committee passed out of existence.” Clara’s brother, Reginald Harris, would later receive a letter informing him that “outside of the rescue work largely carried on by the military” in the first few days after the explosion, Clara had led much of the lifesaving effort. 

The Halifax explosion is a master class in official narratives. Two weeks after the disaster, Professor Archibald MacMechan was commissioned to produce a document that would be endorsed by the city as the authoritative account of the disaster. MacMechan spent four months collecting 122 eyewitness interviews, of which only 20 were from people who lived in the regions most impacted. MacMechan declined to interview Indigenous Mi’Kmaq survivors from the community of Turtle Grove, which had been all but destroyed; nor did he talk to Black Nova Scotian survivors and first responders from Africville and the North End. And though his narrative was based on the interviews he conducted, he would choose the heroes, the arc of the story, and which aspects to emphasize. While his interview with Clara spanned several pages, she would appear only briefly in his official account — and only as an appendage of George, as “Mrs. G.A. Mackintosh [sic].” 

Women walking in an area destroyed by the Halifax explosion in Africville, a community almost exclusively populated by Black Nova Scotians. (Photo courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives)

In retellings of the explosion story, much is made of the efforts organized by the Halifax Relief Commission, but little appears about the volunteers, many of them women, who served the community in the first few days after the disaster. The official narrative is one about strength in the face of adversity, military men and generous Americans coming to the rescue and rebuilding a broken city. But underneath this are a thousand other stories. And in one, in the immediate aftermath of the blast, are the neighbors who rescued neighbors, and the local nurses who took to the streets in droves to deliver aid. In MacMechan’s account, their efforts fade into the backdrop. In the trove that is the Nova Scotia Archives, however, and in more recent books like Laura M. Mac Donald’s Curse of the Narrows, these histories can be found.

The explosion was one of the founding moments in the development of the study of disaster. A young student at Columbia University, Samuel Henry Prince, who had been a clergyman in Halifax during the crisis, would publish his doctoral dissertation, Catastrophe and Social Change, on the sociology of disaster, contributing to the birth of a new field of study in emergency preparedness. Among other key findings, Prince would note that for better or worse, catastrophe always brings about social change. This was certainly true for the city’s nurses.

In the months after the explosion, Clara watched the shift in perception of the Victorian Order by local doctors. One of the first surgeons to arrive from outside the city, Dr. W.B. Moore, commented, “I am sure the most hardened opponent of the extension of the franchise to women would have been a convert had he witnessed, as I did, their qualities of initiative, brains, and efficiency under such circumstances as would test to the fullest degree such qualities in man.”

While it is somewhat exasperating that it took a disaster, the doctors finally began to acknowledge the importance of the ties that the nurses had established in the community. Of the nurses’ aid for new mothers, and for families, especially in the aftermath of the explosion, doctors wrote in an official report that “hundreds would not know where to turn” without the Victorian Order of Nurses. In his report on the St. John Ambulance voluntary brigade, Clara’s brother, Reginald Harris, who had previously written disparagingly of the duties of a VAD, would list by name 200 VADs and nurses and what precisely they did after the explosion. 

Clara, for her part, would pointedly observe that, when a medical relief group finally reported to Richmond two weeks after the explosion, they “found little or nothing to do.” As she put it, “Perhaps the brigade knows why.”