Book Review: The Great Halifax Explosion

The Great Halifax Explosion: 
A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism
Published By: William Morrow
Publication Date:  November 7, 2017
Page Count: 432
Buy it at AmazonBarnes & Noble, or IndieBound
Source: eARC kindly provided by publisher
Adult - Nonfiction/History

Most people in the United States have heard of the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.  But not many of us have heard of the Great Halifax Explosion of 1917, and I wish more of us did.  A hundred years later, it still stands as the worst man-made, non-nuclear explosion history.

Just to give some perspective, the explosion of the Mont-Blanc was about one fifth the power of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima nearly three decades later.  1600 Haligonians were killed instantly, with hundreds more killed in building collapses from both ground and airborne shock waves.  9000 people were left wounded, many of them horribly disfigured from the shrapnel of the nearly disintegrated Mont-Blanc and the black, caustic rain falling from the oily fuel clouds that rose above the detonated ship.  Almost half of the population of the city was left homeless by the effects of the explosion.

The Great Halifax Explosion has a surprising amount of tension within its pages given that readers already know a giant explosion going to happen.  Bacon takes pains to introduce us to not just the main players in the tragedy, the ships' captains and pilots, but also to the everyday people whose lives were irrevocably changed on that fateful December morning.  He gives the reader what feels like slow-motion closeups of the series of missteps leading to the collision of the Imo, an unladen relief ship, and the Mont-Blanc, a cargo ship heavily loaded with high-explosives.  Everything from poor loading of dangerous cargo to a delayed coal delivery for the Imo, from the Imo's odd course through the narrows of the Halifax harbor to the abandoned and blazing Mont-Blanc sliding up to the shore, inexorably led to the potential for ever greater casualties.

More interesting to me than the explosion itself was reading how the Haligonians handled the aftermath.  I had the good fortune to be on a Canadian cruise this summer and visit Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I first heard about this tragic episode of Canadian history.  Every adult I met there had a story about a parent or grandparent's experience of the explosion.  What I liked most about The Great Halifax Explosion is the recounting of so many of those personal stories of loss, survival, and heroism.

The downsides of this book for me were a dry beginning and the author's adherence to chronological order over readability.  Bacon imparts a huge amount of information about the histories of the vessels at the heart of the explosion, Canada's involvement in World War I, and the nature of late 19th to early 20th century explosives.  I'm not saying it wasn't necessary for full understanding of the explosion, but that part read more like a history textbook than the smooth narrative account the author was going for.  Second, in an effort to follow the chronology of the event, Bacon jumps between what was happening in a number of places at a given time.  I found it a bit difficult to follow, though I'm not certain there was any better way to convey the same information -- it is a complicated story.

If you are drawn to stories of tragedy and heroism, World War  I, Canadian history, or the unforeseen consequences of human inventions, you will enjoy reading The Great Halifax Explosion.


From the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author, a gripping narrative-nonfiction account of the world’s largest manmade explosion before the atomic bomb. In December 1917, a freighter carrying 3,000 tons of explosives sailed from Brooklyn bound for the trenches of World War I—en route, a cataclysmic disaster awaited . . .

Entering World War I’s fourth demoralizing year, the Allies hoped to break the grueling stalemate by sending thousands of fresh American troops and more munitions than ever to the trenches of France. Before the French freighter Mont-Blanc set sail from Brooklyn on December 1, 1917, with a staggering 3,000 tons of explosives, the captain banned his crew from lighting a single match, and secured the volatile cargo with copper nails because they don’t spark when struck.

For four harrowing days, the floating powder keg bobbed up the Eastern seaboard, plowing through a wicked snowstorm and waters infested with German U-Boats, which had already torpedoed a thousand Allied ships that year alone. On December 6, the exhausted crew finally slipped into Halifax Harbour—just as the relief ship Imo was rushing to leave. At 8:45 a.m., the Imo struck the Mont-Blanc’s bow, knocking over barrels of airplane fuel. Fire swept across the decks, sending the Mont-Blanc’s crew scurrying to their lifeboats, while Halifax longshoremen, office workers, and schoolchildren walked down to watch it burn.

At 9:04:35 a.m., the Mont-Blanc erupted, leveling 2.5 square miles of Halifax, killing 2,000 people, and wounding 9,000 more—all in one-fifteenth of a second.

In this definitive account, bestselling author John U. Bacon recreates the recklessness that caused the tragedy, the selfless rescue efforts that saved thousands, and the inspiring resilience that rebuilt the town. Just hours after the explosion, Boston alone sent 100 doctors, 300 nurses, and a million dollars. The explosion would revolutionize ophthalmology and pediatrics; transform Canada and the U.S. from adversaries to allies; and show J. Robert Oppenheimer, who studied Halifax closely, how much destruction an atomic bomb could inflict on a city.

Bacon brings to light one of the most dramatic events of the twentieth century, exploring the long shadow the world’s first “weapon of mass destruction” still casts on our world today.

The Great Halifax Explosion includes 25 black-and-white photos.