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book review

The Halifax explosion still reverberates

People walk through the ruins of Halifax after two ships collided in the city’s harbour.

How the disaster 100 years ago became part of Canada's mythology and changed relations with the United States

The Halifax Explosion: Canada's Worst Disaster

By Ken Cuthbertson

HarperCollins/Patrick Crean Editions, 382 pages, $34.99

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The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism

By John U. Bacon

HarperCollins/William Morrow, 418 pages, $36.99

Ernest Barss survived the horrors of the First World War. But nothing he witnessed in the trenches of the Western Front prepared him for his first glimpse of Halifax in December, 1917, hours after a massive munitions explosion flattened wide swaths of the city.

The Richmond neighbourhood of the historic port city and naval base – a staging ground for Canadian troops and supply ships feeding the war effort in Europe – was a no man's land of rubble and ruin. "There was not one stick or stone standing on another. Every house and building had just crumpled up and the whole was a raging mass of flames."

"I saw some terrible scenes of desolation and ruin at the front," he later reported to a relative, "but never … did I ever see anything so absolutely complete."

Dec. 6 marks the 100 th anniversary of the largest human-made explosion before the first atomic bomb. Six million pounds of explosives detonated after the munitions ship Mont-Blanc collided with another vessel in Halifax Harbour. Almost 2,000 were killed, 9,000 were injured – many were blinded when windows imploded, turning glass into shrapnel – and as many as 25,000 people were left homeless or without adequate shelter.

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The devastation that confronted Barss that day was almost unprecedented in North America. Chicago's 1871 fire destroyed a larger urban area but claimed far fewer lives. Halifax joined Johnstown, Pa., (flood, 1889), Galveston, Tex., (hurricane, 1900) and San Francisco (earthquake, 1906) on the list of the continent's deadliest disasters.

Barss's story – he was one of the first to arrive to tend to the injured – is featured in The Great Halifax Explosion, American author and journalism instructor John U. Bacon's account of the disaster. But his book begins not with Barss or the explosion, but with a tree – the towering spruce that Nova Scotians have shipped to Boston each Christmas since the 1970s as a token of thanks for that city's rapid response to the disaster.

Within hours of receiving news of the explosion, Bostonians dispatched a train filled with doctors, nurses and medical supplies. A brief description of the 2016 tree-lighting ceremony on the Boston Common offers Bacon a launching pad for a theme that runs through his book – how the explosion, "a split second that brought out the best of both nations," helped to transform Canada and the United States "from adversaries to allies." Until Donald Trump stormed into the White House, at least.

This approach will appeal to the American audience Bacon has in his sights – readers who might be hard-pressed to find Halifax on a map, but will like the thought of their ancestors as heroes. He refers to the explosion as "a forgotten story" and columnist George F. Will contributed a jacket blurb congratulating the author for rescuing the event "from obscurity."

Obscure and forgotten in the United States, perhaps, but not on this side of the border. Most Canadians will have seen the "Heritage Minute" segment on television, depicting the heroism of Vincent Coleman, who died after sending a telegraph message warning of the impending blast. In Nova Scotia, where ceremonies and media flashbacks dutifully mark each anniversary, everyone seems to have a family story to tell (my grandfather heard the ear-splitting boom on his farm more than 120 kilometres away – it was so loud he was convinced something must have exploded in the nearby town of Truro).

The explosion, Canadian author Ken Cuthbertson contends, "is one of the few Canadian historical events that the world – and, indeed, Canadians themselves – remember." It has become "an integral element" of Halifax's self-image, he writes in The Halifax Explosion: Canada's Worst Disaster, and "Canada's national mythology."

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A century's worth of historical accounts, novels and documentaries, plus a TV miniseries, have told and retold the story. A Goodreads search for "Halifax Explosion" returns more than 40 titles, from Hugh MacLennan's 1941 novel Barometer Rising to Laura M. MacDonald's fine narrative account, Curse of the Narrows, published in the United States and Canada in 2005.

The centennial year has added more books to the list, including Halifax journalist Katie Ingram's Breaking Disaster (Pottersfield Press), a fascinating exploration of the international news coverage the explosion unleashed, and retired colonel-turned-author John Boileau's illustrated – and illuminating – history, 6.12.17: The Halifax Explosion (MacIntyre Purcell).

Bacon and Cuthbertson contribute sweeping narrative accounts of the disaster, its causes and its historical significance. Each author introduces a cast of characters – from the officers and pilots of the ill-fated ships to bystanders drawn to the sight of a burning ship – to recreate the horrific events of 1917.

The early chapters of Bacon's The Great Halifax Explosion reach back another century and a half, to the Revolutionary War, to trace the battles, border tensions and annexation threats that marred Canada-U.S. relations before the First World War. The history lesson is likely essential for an American audience, and reinforces his theme of post-explosion rapprochement between the two countries, but it tends to defuse the narrative tension he's trying to build as events hurtle toward disaster.

Bacon's recreation of the explosion and its aftermath is based almost exclusively on the work of earlier historians and researchers. For most of the first-person accounts of those who survived the blast, for instance, his go-to source is Halifax author Janet Kitz, whose 1989 book Shattered City remains a definitive account of the disaster.

Barss, one of Bacon's central characters, is a notable exception. The author appears to have discovered the former soldier's role in the relief effort through a shared connection to the University of Michigan, where he teaches. Barss, who hailed from Wolfville, N.S., assisted as doctors and nurses treated the injured, an experience that inspired him to enroll in medical school. He trained at the University of Michigan, where he's remembered as founder of the varsity hockey team. Bacon's discovery of a trove of Barss's letters, which remain in his family's possession, injects his book with a fresh and compelling storyline.

Cuthbertson is less interested in bilateral relations than in those responsible for bringing a "devil's cargo" of high explosives into the heart of a major city. He digs deep into court transcripts and archives in Canada, the United States and Europe to restage the shipboard drama that culminated in Mont-Blanc's collision with the outbound Norwegian ship Imo.

On Dec. 6, 1917 in Halifax Harbour, the Norwegian freighter Imo hit the French vessel Mont-Blanc, which was carrying 3,000 tons of munitions.

He also explores in detail the inquiries and prosecutions that sought to find someone – anyone – to blame for the carnage (while the word "treachery" appears in the title of Bacon's book, he pays little attention to this aspect of the story). Rumours swirled that German saboteurs had engineered the collision. "The people will not rest satisfied," the Halifax Herald thundered, "until the truth is known."

Mont-Blanc's captain, the Halifax pilot who guided the ship that morning and the official in charge of vessel traffic in the harbour were rounded up and charged with manslaughter. A judge exonerated the captain and pilot and a jury acquitted the harbour official, ending the search for scapegoats. While Imo had been in the wrong shipping lane, the civil courts ultimately found the vessels equally responsible for the collision.

In many of the survivor stories Bacon and Cuthbertson have assembled, luck determined who lived and who died. One sailor on an anchored ship was shielded from the blast because he ducked below deck, at the right moment, to light up a smoke. Children who trooped off to class that morning died when schools were reduced to rubble; others, who stayed home with colds and other illnesses, survived.

The greatest tragedy, perhaps, is how easily disaster could have been avoided. A sequence of unrelated, everyday events – from minor course corrections to a delayed refuelling that prevented Imo from departing the day before Mont-Blanc reached Halifax – made the collision inevitable. Had either captain barked a different command at the right moment, the ships might have slipped past each other without incident.

Ultimately, the Allied war effort put Mont-Blanc and its deadly cargo in the wrong place at the worst possible time. Official indifference, poor communications, errors of judgment and bad timing – the formula for so many disasters, before and since – did the rest. A century later, the story of the Halifax Explosion still echoes, warning of the cost of human error and human folly.

Dean Jobb's latest book, Empire of Deception, tells the true story of a Chicago swindler who escaped to a new life of decadence in 1920s Nova Scotia.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the explosion in the Halifax Harbour 100 years ago was the largest human-made explosion before the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan in 1945. In fact, it was the largest before an atomic bomb was exploded. The Trinity test explosion of the plutonium bomb at White Sands, New Mexico was larger and preceded the bomb dropped in Japan.
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