Did German PoWs help rebuild Halifax after the 1917 explosion?

When the Halifax Explosion was wrongly seen as a German act of war, Germans were attacked in the city's streets. But one man says German prisoners of war helped his family rebuild their home after the 1917 disaster. 

As a boy, Christopher Borgal often heard conversations about the Halifax Explosion among his extended family at Christmastime. One story held that German PoWs helped tarp a section of the family home damaged by the blast.

The explosion happened on Dec. 6, 1917, after the Mont-Blanc, a French munitions ship, and the Imo, a Norwegian steamship carrying Belgian relief supplies, collided in Halifax harbour. 

Two thousand people were killed in the explosion and another 9,000 injured. The explosion remains the worst disaster in Canadian history.

Borgal's mother was a three-month-old baby living in her family home on Bloomfield Street in the city's north end. She, her two siblings, and their parents all survived the blast. The family home suffered serious damage, including broken windows and a living-room wall that was blown out.

In the days after the explosion, Borgal said this wall was covered with tarp by German PoWs who were being used to help with the relief efforts. Canada and the Allied Powers were at war with Germany and the Central Powers in the First World War. The Germans would have been sailors captured by Allied forces.

Canadian Press

"The family story was they were blaming the German prisoners of war for tearing the front of their family Bible; the cover of the Bible had been dislodged," said Borgal, 68. "My guess is it was probably because of the explosion that the damage had happened."

Borgal's family has German roots and settled in Lunenburg, N.S., in 1751. His family moved from Halifax to Toronto in 1966. Today, he works as a conservation architect and has worked on projects including Parliament Hill. Dec. 6 has another special meaning for him: it's his birthday. 

Family stories had 'different flavours,' but stayed consistent

Borgal said that at Christmas family gatherings, his relatives would talk about the Halifax Explosion and that while the stories had "different flavours," they were pretty consistent in the point that German PoWs helped out.

John Boileau is a military historian and the author of 6•12•17: The Halifax Explosion. He said at the time of the Halifax Explosion, some citizens "swore they saw grey-coated German soldiers marching up the streets of Halifax and many residents also believed there was a German fifth column operating in the city, which of course is spies-behind-enemy-lines type of thing."

He said anti-German sentiment was rampant in the city, especially in light of the wrong early belief that the Germans caused the explosion.

"The times were much more racist than they are today and Germans living in Halifax were stoned, chased through the streets, had their homes attacked, windows smashed and some were jailed, but later released," he said.

Nova Scotia's PoW camps

In December 1917, there was a German PoW camp in Amherst, as well as one at Melville Island in Halifax.

Up until Oct. 3, 1916, there was a prison camp at the Halifax Citadel, which housed a mix of German prisoners and "enemy aliens," or Germans who lived in Canada and were reservists and therefore likely to be called up for military service in Germany, said Boileau.

When that camp was shut down, the remaining prisoners were sent to the Amherst camp.

Boileau said it's impossible to rule out the Borgal family's story.

"Knowing the high feelings that were running against the Germans in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, it sounds unlikely to me, but certainly prisoners of war were used for labour," said Boileau. "I've never come across it anywhere, never read about it or heard about it, but I can't deny it."

Submitted by Christopher Borgal

Boileau said in Amherst, the PoWs were used to plant and harvest crops because so many Nova Scotian men were away at the front fighting.

"I can't absolutely guarantee it, but it wouldn't be surprising if there were some PoWs in the city or in transit because all of the ships came to Halifax in any event," Borgal said. "It's possible there might have been a group of them at one of the local military bases and they brought them from there, but that's the story we had, so that's what I'm going with."