The Halifax Explosion: A Reservist Writes Home, December 1917

Reprinted from Courage at Sea, Newfoundland Sailors in the Great War
By Robert C. Parsons, 2014

 

Much has been written about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, including hundreds of articles and two score books, ranging from Hugh MacLennan’s Barometer Rising to Macdonald’s Curse of the Narrows: The Halifax Explosion 1917, published in 2005.

What follows is a description of the disaster that recently came to light in Newfoundland. It’s from a letter written from Halifax by a survivor to an anxious mother back home in Hodge’s Cove, Newfoundland.

The Halifax Explosion occurred on Thursday, December 6, 1917, when the city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was devasted by the huge detonation of the French cargo ship Mont-Blanc, fully loaded with wartime explosives. It accidentally collided with the Imo, set to sail for Belgium in “The Narrows” section of the Halifax harbour.

Approximately 2,000 people (mostly Canadians) were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings, and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. It is still regarded as one of the world’s largest man-made, conventional explosions to date.

The next day, Naval Reservist Harvey Peddle sat down on his bunk on a ship to write to his mother, Martha Peddle, in Hodge’s Cove. He had been on duty during the Great War, probably on patrol in the North Sea, and was waiting for reassignment. He writes:

Dear Mother,

Just a few lines to let you know that I am well. Well, Mother, I haven’t been in the Navy long but I expect I have seen as big a disaster as ever anybody saw on the other side.

Well, I can thank God that I am alive today where there are thousands that are not. About five minutes after nine Thursday morning there was a French ammunition ship run into by a Belgian relief ship. The French ship had about 4,000 ton of the highest explosives ever made and coming from America. You might be sure it was an explosion.

Every window in Dartmouth was blown out. Buildings came down and there was two miles of Halifax burnt down. Just at the time of explosion I was going on deck and I knew nothing before I pitched on the forecastle floor.

Ivany [Luke Ivany, another Reservists from Ivanhoe, Random Island] jumped out of his berth and came on deck to see what happened and I said, “For God’s sake, if you want to save your life don’t go on deck.” There were twelve of us Reservists here in Dartmouth and we were called up to Halifax as soon as possible. We hastened on, but I can’t tell you what the sights were like. It is far beyond my description.

I helped to get the wounded to the hospital. There was an American hospital ship here at the time and she was filled and every school and hall and hospital in Halifax is filled. There was a sugar refinery here and there were two or three hundred men and women working in it at the time of the explosion. Not one of them escaped.

Well, Mother, there were some heartbreaking cases here; in fact, I didn’t think I had nerve enough for anything but when I came to the test I could stick more than I thought. The explosion shocked the whole land for hundreds of miles. So you can imagine what the blast was like. The glassware and mugs were broken on our vessel.

Myself, Green and Chaulk, got about 200 poor mortals dead and wounded out of a place that was burned down. Every second person in Dartmouth was wounded with glass. The glass on the roads was almost up half our legs in Dartmouth. The casualties now are 2,500 and they are bringing them from all parts of the town. Hundreds they will never find.

Well, the poor little children. If you could see them with their faces cut to pieces with glass. In Dartmouth, that’s about two miles from the scene of the explosion, in many cases there were whole families killed in their homes. Every street in the north end of Halifax were hundreds of men, women and children dying. Mother, we are to give God thanks that we are living in a better place like we are.

It was as fine a morning as every shone, not a cloud in the heavens when the accident happened. I was just getting ready to go to Halifax for the mail when it happened. I can’t tell you more unless I were home.

From your loving son,
Harvey [Peddle]

Harvey added a postscript to his missive home, saying: “When the explosion happened first it was thought it was a German raid. While I was handling the wounded and dead men, I didn’t mind a bit, but when the poor women and children came, it was hard you may depend.”

________________________

Transcribed by Wanda Garrett, January 2021

These transcriptions may contain human errors. As always, confirm these as you would any other source material.