At 1:50 a.m., Winnipeggers and Manitobans first received news that the “war to end all wars” was actually about to end on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. The news was flashed over the telegraph wires that the Germans had finally signed an armistice after four years of bloody fighting that had claimed millions of lives.
It was from Washington that the telegram was received, with an accompanying message from U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, as well as the terms of the armistice (a peace treaty was not signed until a year later). In part, Wilson’s message read: “It is now possible to assess the consequences of this great consummation. We know only that this tragical war, whose consuming flame swept from one nation to another until all the world was on fire is at an end ...”
The armistice brought to an end, “armed imperialism” said Wilson, which had by its own choice “disturbed the peace of the world.”
Despite the presence of a deadly influenza epidemic — the Spanish Flu in 1918 killed 15-million people worldwide — ravaging the city and province, which had led to the closure of theatres, schools, churches and other public gathering places to prevent the spread of the disease, Winnipeggers choose to ignore the possible threat to their health, and celebrated en masse the end of hostilities.
At 2 a.m., people began to file out of their homes into the city’s streets, but the first celebrations were tentative until a whistle shrilled at 5 o’clock, the hour in Winnipeg time that marked the end of hostilities. Other whistles quickly followed, adding to the chorus of sounds filling the air that also included church bells.
“Men and women and boys and girls appeared in the street ...,” reported the Manitoba Free Press. “They carried flags and they shouted for the very joy of the moment ...
“A khaki-clad veteran appeared with the bagpipes and the stirring notes of a Scottish war song rose wild and high on the night air. A crowd followed as the piper stepped proudly up the street.
“Scores of bugles sounded across the city, tin pans and cowbells and other noise-making equipment was brought freely into use by boys and many who were no longer boys.
Winnipeg Takes Holiday to Celebrate was the headline in the Winnipeg Evening Tribune. “Bands play, horns toot, bagpipes skirl, flags wave in honor of victory,” the newspaper reported.
“One thing that gladdens me,” said Rev. Dr. Silcox, “is that my own boy, who has been in France three years, can go to bed tonight without fear of shells or death. No ‘going over the top’ through mud and blood.”
Another man was observed on the street carrying a French flag. He told the reverend that he was a “Canadian through and through,” but carried the flag “because my boy sleeps there — I shall always carry it.”
His was just one of over 60,000 Canadian troops to die during the First World War.
“This is a great day to have lived to see,” Silcox said to a Free Press reporter. “The end of the greatest war that has ever touched this planet. In all the days to come Canadians must never forget what they owe to the men who saved the country from German domination. This land ought to be dearer to us than ever because it has been saved by the blood of her best young manhood.
At the Free Press building on Carlton, a balcony had been erected from which dignitaries delivered their speeches in commemoration of the eventful day.
“We have a just right to rejoice,” said John W. Dafoe, managing editor of the newspaper. “We have patiently waited and hoped for this day for four years that we could celebrate the victory of right over might, achieved by the valor and courage of the allied forces on the battle fields of Europe.”
Manitoba Lieutenant-Governor James Aikins said it was a day that closed four awful years of conflict “between truth and falsehood, between freedom and oppression, let us rejoice greatly that the cause of righteousness carries the conquerers crown.”
At 2 o’clock in the afternoon, 1,500 veterans led by the Great War (the name then used to describe the First World War) Veterans’ Band marched down Main Street and Broadway to be met by members of the Fort Garry Horse and other members of the military. The 1.6-kilometre parade that ensued held up traffic, and according to the media, was followed by “miles” of automobiles “gaily decked with flags and carrying their full capacity of human freight.”
In addition to the major parades hasty organized to commemorate the occasion, individuals banded together “and marched in processions, large and small” (Free Press). Here was a small column of happy workers headed by two bright girls who played on improvised kettle-drums and played in good time, too. There, came another column, led by a gentleman in armour, secured at the expense of the kitchen at home. On his head he wore an inverted saucepan lid of enormous size, and shaped like a pyramid ...”
Another man had used a large circular saw as a drum, striking it with a metal hammer. The Free Press said this man had the distinction of being the only individual to manage to drown out the skirl of the bagpipes.
The crowds assembled to mark the armistice mirrored the crowds that cheered in the first days of 1914, when Canadians began the march to war. But the battles of the Somme, Passchendale, Vimy Ridge and Ypres tempered enthusiasm by alerting Canadians to the massive blood-letting resulting from modern, technology-driven warfare. Exploding artillery shells and machine-guns sweeping the battlefield contributed to most of the casualties on both sides. If there was some hint of any romanticized notion associated with such warfare, it was quickly dispelled when the first gas attacks took place in 1915. The old adage that “war is hell” was vividly emphasized when “hell on earth” was unleashed in 1914 and raged on for four years.
It was more from a sense of relief than the actual victory that Canadians celebrated the 1918 armistice. Few had not been tainted by the war — many families had lost loved ones and others had lost dear friends.
“The world has drifted far from its anchorage,” said Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden, who was aboard the Mauretania one day’s sailing time out of New York, when the armistice was announced, “and no man can certainly prophesy what the outcome will be.”
If the prophesy was that the First World War would be “the world to end all wars,” future events would conspire against such a statement. In just 21 years, the world would erupt in another war, which was even more costly in terms of lives lost, and Canadians would once again be thrust into a world-wide conflagration.
But as Rev. Silcox remarked on November 11, 1918, Canadians should never forget those who fought and died in the name of freedom, lest they dishonour individuals such as the son of the father, who carried a French flag during the armistice celebration in Winnipeg in memory of his son’s sacrifice.