Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

WWI Centennial: Horror in Halifax

Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain
Halifax Relief Commission // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 295th installment in the series.

December 6, 1917: Horror in Halifax

In addition to all the deliberate destruction, the First World War generated enormous collateral damage in the form of accidents, usually resulting from the movement of large numbers of people and dangerous material in unfamiliar environments—plus a lack of safety precautions that would be considered truly shocking by modern standards.

One of the worst accidents of the entire war occurred far from the European war zone, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, an important stopover for cargo ships carrying munitions from factories in Canada and the United States to Europe.

Around 8:45 a.m. on December 6, 1917, a French cargo ship packed with explosives and high-octane fuel, the Mont-Blanc, collided with the Imo, a Norwegian ship chartered to carry relief supplies to Belgium in Halifax Harbor (below, the Imo after the blast). The collision started a fire aboard the Mont-Blanc, which quickly grew out of control. Twenty minutes later the deadly cargo ignited, unleashing a blast of phenomenal power, estimated to be equivalent to around 2.9 kilotons, or about a fifth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

A ship involved in the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The explosion completely destroyed Halifax’s Richmond district, killing approximately 2000 people and injuring 9000 more. The strength of the blast was illustrated by the fact that a 3-ton anchor was thrown a distance of 2 miles, while a sailor’s decapitated head is said to have smashed church windows 1.5 miles away. A tidal wave created by the explosion killed every member of a community of Mi’kmaq people, a local First Nations tribe.

Barbara Orr recalled growing panic as the fire spread aboard the Mont-Blanc in plain view of people on shore who were helpless to stop it, followed by the cataclysm, then darkness and a huge wall of water:

It was so still, so calm, and this terrible, awful column of smoke went up, and then balls of fire would roll up through it. Then they burst—but there was no sound. It was the strangest thing. I stood spellbound in the middle of this field, and then thought, oh, something awful is going to happen. Suddenly the explosion went off. … I was thinking that I was going down in deep holes all the time. Somebody said that would be almost like an unconsciousness … There was this tidal wave—it’s said that you could see the bottom of the harbor. Well, this tidal wave … took a lot of people back into the harbor on the way down … but since I was smaller and lighter, I was caught in the tidal wave and the force of the explosion blew me the rest of the way.

A cloud formed by the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Library and Archives Canada // Public Domain

Another victim, Ethel Mitchel, was at home when the blast destroyed most of the structure:

When mother went down she was on the stairs when the explosion occurred. The cellar stairs were below the stairs going up to our rooms. The stairs, carpet and all went to the basement with mother on top of them. She was horribly cut. All I know is that this deafening roar occurred and the windows, both the windows went out towards the door on each side of me, and my cat was at the foot of the bed, killed. And yet I was not touched. I was totally unhurt. I was in that only corner of the house that was intact. Now here is the amazing thing. The stairs were taken completely away. How did I get down from that room to the next floor? I had glass in the soles of my feet, from running across the room. If I had jumped I would have gone right to the basement. And nobody knows yet how I got down. But I was found later sitting on a biscuit box way over on a corner, at the grocery store. Yes, and I had a man’s overcoat on, it didn’t belong to us, I don't know where I got it, and a man’s boots on, and nobody knows where I got them. Somebody recognized me, and took me back home.

Destruction resulting from the 1917 Halifax Explosion
Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management // Public Domain

The disaster—still considered one of the worst maritime shipping accidents ever—gave ordinary people a taste of the horror of war, and soldiers a disturbing preview. Two weeks after the explosion, Briggs K. Adams, an American soldier who stopped in Halifax en route to Europe, wrote home on December 22, 1917:

We all read about the disaster at Halifax, but you had to see it to form any conception of how terrible it must have been. At the farther distances, just windows and chimneys were broken; nearer, roofs and walls were caved in, and then in the immediate area, a whole hillside was stripped as flat as if it had been raked, not even heaps of wreckage—everything level. It must have been incredibly terrific.

The Canadian government hurried to first deliver tents and then build temporary housing for thousands of residents left homeless in the middle of winter, while concerned citizens across the U.S. and Canada donated huge amounts of food, clothing, and other necessities for the victims. However, major reconstruction efforts would continue until 1922, and a number of factories destroyed in the disaster were never rebuilt, leaving many unemployed.

Halifax Memorial bell tower
Jesse David Hollington // CC BY 2.0

Today the disaster is commemorated by the Halifax Explosion Memorial Bell Tower (above). The memorial recreates the appearance of a wrecked house; the bells were donated by Orr, who lost her entire family in the blast, including her parents and five siblings.

See the previous installment or all entries.

Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Would You Be Able to Pass a World War I Military Literacy Test?
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain
Sergeant Marshall/Department of Defense, NARA // Public Domain

Though reading and writing might not come to mind as the first requirement for trench warfare, during the early 20th century, the U.S. Army became increasingly concerned with whether or not its soldiers were literate. Thousands of World War I soldiers couldn't read printed directions on basic military tasks. The Army didn't implement its first major literacy program until the 1940s, but literacy tests were included in a battery of psychological evaluations World War I recruits went through to determine their mental fitness and intelligence, as the blog Futility Closet recently highlighted.

These unconventional literacy tests largely took the form of a yes or no questions with obvious answers, according to the 1921 report from the U.S. Surgeon General, Psychological Examining in the United States Army. Edited by pioneering intelligence-testing psychologist Robert Yerkes, who developed the military's first psychology exams for new recruits (and was also famous for his support for eugenics), the volume is a lengthy compilation of all of the methods the U.S. Army used to test the intelligence of its future soldiers. Many of these tests are now considered racist and culturally biased—some of the "intelligence" testing questions required recruits to know things like what products Velvet Joe (a figure used in tobacco campaigns) advertised—but some of the literacy questions, in particular, simply come off as weird in the modern era. Some are downright existential, in fact, while others—"Is a guitar a disease?"—come off as almost poetic.

A long questionnaire to test literacy, including questions like 'Is coal white?'
Psychological Examining in the United States Army, Google Books // Public Domain

One test, the Devens Literarcy Test, asked recruits questions like "Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?" and "Does success tend to bring pleasure?" Another section of the test asked "Do boys like to play?" and "Do clerks enjoy a vacation?"

Other questions seem like they're up for debate, like "Are painters ever artless individuals?" and "Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?" Surely the answers to questions like "Should criminals forfeit liberty?" and "Is misuse of money an evil?" depend on the opinions of the reader. The answer to "Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?" might be different depending on how the person feels about their Congressional representative, and could surely be the spark for an hour-long argument at most dinner parties.

Still others are tests of cultural knowledge, not reading skill—a major modern criticism of Yerkes's work. Despite being arguably a pretty literate person, I certainly don't know the answer to the question "Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?" A question like "Are 'diminutive' and 'Lilliputian' nearly identical?" isn't exactly a test of literacy, but a test of whether or not you've read Gulliver's Travels, which doesn't exactly seem like a necessity for military success.

Luckily, some of the questions are pretty obvious, like "Is coal white?" That one I can answer. The full list of questions used in the various versions of the Devens test is below for you to test your own Army-level literacy.

  • Do dogs bark?
  • Is coal white?
  • Can you see?
  • Do men eat stones?
  • Do boys like to play?
  • Can a bed run?
  • Do books have hands?
  • Is ice hot?
  • Do winds blow?
  • Have all girls the same name?
  • Is warm clothing good for winter?
  • Is this page of paper white?
  • Are railroad tickets free?
  • Is every young woman a teacher?
  • Is it always perfect weather?
  • Is the heart within the body?
  • Do clerks enjoy a vacation?
  • Is the President a public official?
  • Would you enjoy losing a fortune?
  • Does an auto sometimes need repair?
  • Is it important to remember commands?
  • Are avenues usually paved with oxygen?
  • Do we desire serious trouble?
  • Is practical judgment valuable?
  • Ought a man's career to be ruined by accidents?
  • Do you cordially recommend forgery?
  • Does an emergency require immediate decision?
  • Should honesty bring misfortune to its possessor?
  • Are gradual improvements worth while?
  • Is a punctual person continually tardy?
  • Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid?
  • Should preliminary disappointment discourage you?
  • Is hearsay testimony trustworthy evidence?
  • Is wisdom characteristic of the best authorities?
  • Is extremely athletic exercise surely necessary?
  • Is incessant discussion usually boresome?
  • Are algebraic symbols ever found in manuals?
  • Are tentative regulations ever advantageous?
  • Are "diminutive" and "Lilliputian" nearly identical?
  • Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?
  • Do all connubial unions eventuate felicitously?
  • Is a "gelatinous exaltation" ridiculous?
  • Are "sedate" and "hilarious" similar in meaning?
  • Is avarice sometimes exhibited by cameos?
  • Can a dog run?
  • Is water dry?
  • Can you read?
  • Do stones talk?
  • Do books eat?
  • Do cats go to school?
  • Are six more than two?
  • Is John a girl's name?
  • Are there letters in a word?
  • Is your nose on your face?
  • Can you carry water in a sieve?
  • Do soldiers wear uniforms?
  • Does it rain every morning?
  • Are newspapers made of iron?
  • Are "forward" and "backward" directions?
  • Do many people attend motion-picture theatres?
  • Do handkerchiefs frequently injure human beings?
  • Do magazines contain advertisements?
  • Are political questions often the subject of debates?
  • Are empires inclosed in envelopes?
  • Are members of the family usually regarded as guests?
  • Is genuine happiness a priceless treasure?
  • Do imbeciles usually hold responsible offices?
  • May chimneys be snipped off with scissors?
  • Is moderation a desirable virtue?
  • Are apish manners desired by a hostess?
  • Do conscientious brunettes exist?
  • Do serpents make oblong echoes?
  • Do voluntary enlistments increase the army?
  • Is hypocrisy approved by honest men?
  • Is virile behavior effeminate?
  • Do alleged facts often require verification?
  • Do pestilences ordinarily bestow great benefit?
  • Are painters ever artless individuals?
  • Do the defenders of citadels sometimes capitulate?
  • Do physicians ameliorate pathological conditions?
  • Is embezzlement a serious misdemeanor?
  • Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?
  • Are "loquacious" and "voluble" opposite in meaning?
  • May heresies arise among the laity?
  • Are piscatorial activities necessarily lucrative?
  • Do tendrils terminate in cerebral hemorrhages?
  • Does a baby cry?
  • Can a hat speak?
  • Do hens lay eggs?
  • Is a stone soft?
  • Is one more than seven?
  • Do the land and sea look just alike?
  • Are some books black?
  • Does water run up hill?
  • Are stamps used on letters?
  • Do 100 cents make a dollar?
  • Are we sure what events will happen next year?
  • Do ships sail on railroads?
  • Do stones float in the air?
  • May meat be cut with a knife?
  • Are ledges common in mountain districts?
  • Does success tend to bring pleasure?
  • Are diamonds mined in mid-ocean?
  • Is misuse of money an evil?
  • Should criminals forfeit liberty?
  • Is special information usually a disadvantage?
  • Are attempted suicides always fatal?
  • Are exalted positions held by distinguished men?
  • Does confusion favor the establishment of order?
  • Is a civil answer contrary to law?
  • Is a dilapidated garment nevertheless clothing?
  • Are textile manufacturers valueless?
  • Do thieves commit depredations?
  • Does close inspection handicap accurate report?
  • Do transparent goggles transmit light?
  • Do illiterate men read romances?
  • Is irony connected with blast furnaces?
  • Do avalanches ever descend mountains?
  • Are scythes always swung by swarthy men?
  • Do pirates accumulate booty?
  • Are intervals of repose appreciated?
  • Are intermittent sounds discontinuous?
  • Is an avocational activity ordinarily pleasurable?
  • Are pernicious pedestrians translucent?
  • Are amicable relationships disrupted by increased congeniality?
  • Are many nocturnal raids surreptitiously planned
  • Are milksops likely to perpetrate violent offenses?
  • Are "precipitancy" and "procrastination" synonymous?
  • Is snow cold?
  • Can a dog read?
  • Do houses have doors?
  • Has a horse five legs?
  • Are three more than ten?
  • Do mice love cats?
  • Does a hat belong to you?
  • Do animals have glass eyes?
  • Should fathers provide clothing for children?
  • Is it true that lead is heavy
  • Do poor men have much money?
  • Is summer colder than winter?
  • Can a horse tell time by a watch?
  • Is a city larger than a country town?
  • Does Christmas ever fall on Tuesday?
  • Do Christians often overlook faults?
  • Are difficult problems easily solved?
  • Do convicts sometimes escape from prison?
  • Should the courts secure justice for everybody?
  • Are scoundrels always intoxicated?
  • Is a guitar a kind of disease?
  • Do jugglers furnish entertainment?
  • Should we build on insecure foundations?
  • Do annual conventions take place biweekly?
  • Does persistent effort favor ultimate success?
  • Is a shrewd man necessarily admired?
  • Is manual skill advantageous?
  • Are elaborate bonnets inexpensive?
  • Are petty annoyances irritating?
  • Are false arguments valid?
  • Do you approve of ruthless massacres?
  • Do blemishes occur in complexions?
  • Is air found in a complete vacuum?
  • Do robins migrate periodically?
  • Are weird tales sometimes gruesome?
  • Do felines possess locomotor appendages?
  • Do demented individuals frequently have hallucinations?
  • Are laconic messages sometimes verbose?
  • Are perfunctory endeavors usually efficacious?
  • Would a deluge extinguish a smouldering trellis?
  • Are devastated suburbs exhilarating vistas?
  • Are "contingent" and "independent" alike in meaning?

[h/t Futility Closet]

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.


The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.


Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.


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