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Newspapers Galore: War Journalism and Halifax City

By: Meg Sutton



Newspaper headlines reported disaster and devastation in Nova Scotia as the First World War hit the Canadian home front. According to papers across the nation, the city of Halifax had become a blast zone. As a main port settlement for Canada during World War I, Halifax was the essential final refueling station for ships before they made their passage across the Atlantic. With all of this traffic, cargo ships had to carefully navigate when entering the infamous “Narrows” part of the harbour. Collisions were inevitable in such close quarters, so when the IMO and Mont Blanc scraped sides, Halifax suffered the consequences. News from the front was sensationalized, and acted as a source of information and entertainment back home. As a result, war journalism became essential to update the public on the allies’ progress overseas. When rumours began to circulate that spies were responsible for the explosion at home, a whole new story broke.

Toronto Daily Star Headline, the day after the explosion.

© Toronto Daily Star.

These national and local papers published within the week of the explosion can be annotated to demonstrate the perception of Halifax in relation to Canada. Highlighting the phrasing, war art elements of the headline images, and other literary features of the papers visually compare and contrast the approach different regions took to report on the explosion.

The Morning Chronicle column headline, 1917.

© The Morning Chronicle.


The catalyst of the blast occurred at 9:05 AM on December 6, 1917, when the Norwegian ship, IMO, and French carrier, the Mont Blanc, crashed bows in the strait of the harbor.[1] In Mi’kma’ki—the present and ancestral territory of the Mi’kmaw people—Kjipuktuk (Halifax Harbour) is one feature of an enduring indigenous landscape comprising much of northeastern North America. The area of the harbour where Imo struck Mont-Blanc was known by Mi’kmaw people as Kepe'kek, meaning “at the Narrows.”

Nicknamed after its limited depth and passing lanes, the two ships initially seemed to only suffer a scratch. Twenty minutes later, the Mont Blanc had drifted near the Halifax shore and exploded with one seventh of the power of the first atomic bomb.[2] It was the largest man-made explosion until nuclear power was developed. If it had not been for the World War I effort, the IMO would have been whale hunting in Antarctica, while the Mont Blanc would have been commissioned to trade along the South American coast. Neither would have been near Halifax, nor carrying explosive cargo. Days after the blast occurred, the Morning Chronicle reported that “had the same quantity of explosives been stored on land when the explosion occurred, it would have wiped out every living thing within an area of ten square miles." According to the newspapers, the explosion left 1,963 dead and an average of 9,000 injured because the sight of the collision drew residents to the harbor. It was a spectacle to see, but as the Mont Blanc imploded, she flattened downtown Halifax and those at the edge of the harbour.

A 1917 Map of the devastated areas of Halifax.

© Nova Scotia Archives.

Check out this Immersive Map/Photo Activity:

War Reporting

"Newspapers are notorious for making errors of detail; however, they provide a broad picture of an incident and the sequence of events leading up to and during a disaster." - Scanlon, 152.

The bulk of the vocabulary used in newspaper writing is neutral and literary, however in the period of the Great War, newspapers were used for propaganda as opposed to truthful reporting. Usually, content was hyper-patriotic and overly optimistic that the war would end soon because the government censored any material that would be threatening to home front morale.[3] After the first few months of the war, armies were able to ban newspaper journalists from visiting and reporting on the front-line troops. Instead, armies and navies issued official war correspondents who wrote their own version of their battles for the newspapers. People at home were always anxious to hear the news about what was happening on the fighting fronts, for “excitement comes when previously untapped information allows new insights into what seemed to be a well-told story.”[4]

Imo aground and under guard on the Dartmouth shore.

© Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, MP 207.1.184/270.

The newspaper was the first place Canadians could see the damage caused by the explosion for themselves. Predicated on images from the front, the images published were remarkably similar to those of recently bombed towns. This is because Canadian images of World War I offered photographs that were compatible with existing notions of what wartime looked like in Europe. [5] Journalists often relied on photographs to depict aspects of the war that words could not convey. By weaving memorable scenes from the past into their images of the present, they provided a context that invokes memory and recognition for explanation. This was the strategy used by Hugh MacLennan, a young student journalist who experienced the explosion. [6]

Due to the tightknit community “in Halifax and Dartmouth, it seems everyone has a connection” to someone or something involved in the explosion. [7] Yet most accounts and photographs remain within family records or are protected in the Nova Scotia Archives. This is because initially, the explosion itself was highly censored. After the collision, inactive soldiers seized cameras and prevented film from being processed in order to control what would be publicly published. Therefore, “the authorities would not permit cameras near the harbor when the explosion occurred” in order to control any material that may be circulated. [8]

The 1917 Chicago Daily Tribune, featuring a column

on the explosion during wartime.

© The Chicago Daily Tribune.

In this way, rumours and assumptions could be mitigated- or so Halifax authorities thought. Despite this, newspapers like the Halifax Herald thrived off of and “fed the hysteria." [9] Two days after the explosion, the paper reported on the arrest of sixteen "enemy civilians" as the “first phase of an operation intended to take practically all the Germans in Halifax into custody" [10]. Rumours of espionage then began to spread across the nation and internationally. The Chicago Tribune confirmed, on December 17, 1917, that the blast was purposefully caused by John Johansen, the helmsman on the Belgian IMO. Consequently, “another persistent story was that a secret code in German had been found on Johansen,” which as a result of all these rumours, launched a full on pursuit for spies lurking on the east coast. [11] Due to high censorship of photography and film, Arthur Lismer, who would later form the Canadian Group of Seven, took it upon himself to sketch the aftermath.

Help the Halifax Blind, printed in the Canadian Courier,

Vol. XXIII, No. 10, February 16, 1918, p.11.

Attributed to Arthur Lismer. © Photography by Arthur Chow.

Courtesy of Alan Ruffman.

National Papers

As rumours spread across the nation, more major Canadian newspapers began to report on the explosion. Every day, new papers provided updated information about the blast from the previous day, but only as communications with Halifax were restored. Since reports seemed to differ day by day, national papers focused on the reason the collision happened. It was war time. Theories of espionage, faulty mechanics, and drunken sailors percolated the stories; however, the one verified fact was the city of Halifax had become a casualty as a result of the fight overseas. For instance, the Toronto Daily Star attempted to explain what happened in the most formal way possible. Utilizing neutrality, the paper navigated between rumour and confirmation to deliver the facts to its audience. The headline “Stricken City - One-half of North End has been absolutely wiped out,” lead a column. [12]

This diction creates an impersonal tone throughout the paper which is reflected throughout other national editions. This attitude aimed to remove patriotic affiliation with the victims to further provide a bias free account of the specifics of the disaster. According to Tumber, “conveying them [the facts] in a detached, impersonal way, free of value judgments” allowed for newspapers to present conflicts objectively. [13] The word choice hints at a militaristic narrative: “The vessels collided soon after 8:30 this morning, and it is presumed that the munitions ship was hit in the stokehold because instantly flames were seen to pour from her,” explains the Toronto Daily. Words like “vessels” and “stokehold” were not commonplace in articles.

This demonstrates how the paper was hyper-focused on the explosion and what it meant for Canada in the war. Rarely are personal accounts incorporated, unless it is to add to the death toll. People were referred to as “civilians,” “causalities,” or “the dead;” and were only present in a statistical role. The “number of injured is tremendous,” reports the paper, but no details confirm the unknown extent of the injured. Beneath the headline, the feature image provides a visual to how far the explosion damage reached. Coincidently, the grid mapping technique is a prominent characteristic in the observational photos taken by air balloonists of the fighting front.

This is just another way in which the national paper reflects a more war time report. It could be that photography would be unethical and too graphic, if abiding by news organization’s standards. There was also a national government censor on most material. Accordingly, a grid sketch would be free to publish and would be less traumatic for readers to see. Even so, that would be a selling point for publications, as they capitalized on spectacle and entertainment. For this reason, and because of national business losses and elections, the city saw less of its name in the headlines a mere ten days later. Even though it was an ongoing disaster in Halifax, the small town was old news, and quickly marginalized in the papers.

Local Papers

It was the papers that were printed closer to the scene of the explosion that give intimate information about the day and later weeks to come in the city. Editions like the Morning Chronicle, Halifax Herald, and even Truro’s Tribune shared names of residents, interviews with witnesses, and experts’ opinions on the cause [14]. On December 8, Halifax’s the Morning Chronicle wrote, “the extent of the tragedy of Thursday has been described as amazing, appalling and incalculable." [15] The fact that the collision occurred in a seasoned port city made the story even more bewildering. “Given the emotionally charged atmosphere in the city,” the columns aimed to tell the stories of Haligonians and document the disaster. [16]

By incorporating anecdotes within the news components, it made the experience more relatable for readers. There were similar sufferings throughout the community and the papers let people know they were not alone. Incorporating personal stories manipulated readers to feel sympathy and empathy. In fact, Boston’s quick response aid can be credited to clippings and letters sent to the neighboring city. According to the Morning Chronicle, an “expert in explosives had [sic] made a statement that should cause Halifax, shrouded in grief as she was, to realize that she has had a miraculous escape.”

This notion of grief was evident in the stories, and photographs helped to illustrate what words could not describe. For some, it was difficult to talk about the experience, so photos opened up a forum for interpretation. In earlier issues, they were careful to censor personages in the photographs, focusing on wreckage and recognizable city points; however, as the community began to settle, photos of the wounded and dead began to circulate. “Not a house in Halifax escaped some damage,” reported the Halifax Herald. [17]

Notably, local papers, such as the Herald, focused on the “survivors” rather than those who had passed. Celebrating life in the city as opposed to those who died seems to be a morale tactic to foster hope and community. For instance, words about death and grief were omitted, unlike in the national papers. The Herald mentions the death toll, but quickly counters with a column focused on methods of finding relief. It explains how its office is “collecting information regarding the missing, and citizens who have victims of the disaster at their home.” Notice how words like “citizens” and “victims” are used to refer to the residents, compared to how the national papers talked about “civilians” or numbers.

Local news was much more interested in the people of Halifax and their lives amongst the backdrop of a ravaged city. There is a much more familiar tone throughout the articles. The priority was to keep the public informed during this confusing time. How to find family, friends, and faith was the real news that the local papers tried to publish.

Halifax Disaster Record Office Letter, 1917.

© Nova Scotia Archives.


[1] Janet F. Kitz, "Halifax Explosion Infosheet".

[2] Ibid.

[3] "Trench Culture - Trench Newspapers" in Canada And The First World War. Canadian War Museum, 2017. [4] Scanlon, "Rewriting A Living Legend: Researching The 1917 Halifax Explosion,"148.

[5] Barbie Zelizer, "When War is Reduced to a Photograph," 124.

[6] Scanlon, "Rewriting A Living Legend: Researching The 1917 Halifax Explosion," 154.

[7] Ibid, 161.

[8] Ibid, 157.

[9] John Griffith Armstrong, The Halifax Explosion And The Royal Canadian Navy, 113.

[10] “Halifax Wrecked,” The Halifax Herald [Halifax, NS] December 10, 1917, 1. All references to The Halifax Herald in this essay are to the copies of the newspaper contained in Nova Scotia Archives.

[11] "Halifax Blast Pilot Seized as German Spy,” The Chicago Tribune [Chicago, IL] December 14, 1917, 1. All references to The Chicago Tribune in this essay are to the copies of the newspaper contained in

[12] "Halifax is Wrecked,” The Toronto Daily Star [Toronto, ON] December 6, 1917, 1. All references to The Toronto Daily Star in this essay are to the copies of the newspaper contained in ProQuest: Historical Newspapers Database.

[13] Howard Tumber, “Prisoners of News Values,” 201.

[14] Scanlon, "Rewriting A Living Legend: Researching The 1917 Halifax Explosion," 152.

[15] Appalling magnitude of the tradgedy which has plunged the community in grief,” The Morning Chronicle [Halifax, NS] December 8, 1917, 1. All references to The Morning Chronicle in this essay are to the copies of the newspaper contained in

[16] Armstrong, The Halifax Explosion And The Royal Canadian Navy, 7.

[17] “Halifax Wrecked.”


Kernaghan, Lois. "Halifax Explosion." In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historical Canada, 2011. Retrieved on Jan. 23, 2017.

Vance, Jonathan F.: Commemoration and Cult of the Fallen (Canada), in: 1914-1918 online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, ed. by Ute Daniel, Peter Gatrell, Oliver Janz, Heather Jones, Jennifer Keene, Alan Kramer, and Bill Nasson, issued by Free Universität Berlin, Berlin 2015-04-21. DOL:10.15463/ie1418.10617.


Graham, Gayle, and Bertrum H. MacDonald. "The Halifax Explosion and the Spread of Rumour through Print Media, 1917 to the Present." Journal Of The Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 17. (2014): 92-111. Historic Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed January 21, 2017).

Scanlon, T. Joseph. "Rewriting A Living Legend: Researching The 1917 HalifaX Explosion". International Journal Of Mass Emergencies And Disasters 15, no. 1(1997): 147-178.

Tumber, Howard. "Prisoners of News Values". In Reporting War: Journalism In Wartime, 190-205. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer, 1st ed. Oxon: Taylor & Francis Inc., 2004.

Zelizer, Barbie. "When War Is Reduced To A Photograph". In Reporting War: Journalism In Wartime, 115 - 135. Stuart Allan and Barbie Zelizer, 1st ed. Oxon:Taylor & Francis Inc., 2004.


Armstrong, John Griffith. The Halifax explosion and the Royal Canadian Navy : inquiry and intrigue. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.

Kitz, Janet. Shattered City: the Halifax explosion and the road to recovery. Halifax,N.S.: Nimbus, 1989.


"Halifax Explosion Infosheet." Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Nova Scotia Museum. 2016. do/halifax-explosion.

“Halifax Explosion.” Nova Scotia Archives. Province of Nova Scotia. 2017.

"Trench Culture - Trench Newspapers | Canada And The First World War". Canada And The First World War,2017. front/trench-culture/trench-newspapers/.


The Chicago Daily Tribune [Chicago, IL] December 1917.

The Halifax Herald [Halifax, NS] December 1917.

The Morning Chronicle [Halifax, NS] December 1917.

The Toronto Daily Star [Toronto, ON] December 1917 - November 1987.


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