It was mid-afternoon on the east coast of Australia when allied commanders and their German counterparts, after meeting for several days at the forest of Compiègne in battle-devastated northern France, agreed to the terms that would end the first world war.
The Germans and British signed the Armistice of Compiègne between 5.12am and 5.20am on 11 November 1918, just as shift workers in the eastern coastal cities of Australia were heading home or into the pubs, and about lunchtime in the west.
The German surrender had been anticipated. Revolution was under way in its cities, and the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and Bulgaria, had already been eliminated from the war. The Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes, meanwhile, was the subject of often negative news reports while, stationed in London, he haggled and hectored the British PM, Lloyd George, over the terms of the forthcoming peace and Australia’s representation at the conference of Versailles.
Indeed, almost from the moment on 8 November when the train carrying the German representatives crossed into France for the final negotiations, the word half a world away in Sydney was that the armistice had already been signed.
As historian Joan Beaumont writes in Broken Nation – Australians in the Great War, “In Australia celebrations started prematurely in Sydney, where rumours circulated that the armistice had been signed on 8 November.”
Undeterred by the continuing pre-signing negotiations in Picardy, a festive atmosphere gripped Sydney over the whole weekend before the armistice, and peaked when confirmation of its signing reached the city in the mid-evening of 11 November.
As the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 13 November: “The news, definite and official, that Germany had submitted to the armistice terms, came on Monday evening. Sydney, having benefitted by two full dress rehearsals, began forthwith to ‘celebrate’ – and has been celebrating with more or less continuity and thoroughness ever since.”
Tens of thousands of people poured into central Sydney from the suburbs on ferries, trams and trains. Despite the state government’s anticipation of the armistice, there was next to no official celebration or provision for it on the evening of 11 November, as bands of musicians took it upon themselves to make impromptu performances and the crowds crushing into Martin Place and George Street broke into patriotic song.
Indeed, it was as if the celebrating crowds came as a surprise to local officials. Impromptu arrangements to put an extra 150 trams on the tracks had to be made by Sydney’s tramways department to cope with the sudden rush of commuters. This made little difference because the trams could not pass through the crowds on the biggest thoroughfares.
All about Sydney the church bells pealed. Factory sirens wailed. Vessels on the harbour hooted their horns. Thousands of people waved (mostly British) flags, blew whistles and tapped on tin cans. Couples kissed and danced. Confetti rained down on the streets and, Beaumont writes, “effigies of ‘Kaiser Bill’ were hanged”.
Australia had, from a population of barely 5 million at war’s outbreak in 1914, contributed heavily (though less so than other nations) to the British war effort. There was no conscription, yet more than 416,000 men volunteered and 331,000 were deployed, of whom 60,000-plus died. Another 155,000 were physically wounded while many more returned with the scourge of undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.
Patriotic fervour greeted Australia’s entry to the war. But by 1918 Australia – having twice voted at plebiscite to deny Hughes the right to conscript more men for the war machine – was marred by bitter sectarianism and division over loyalty to the empire.
While the rancour and division might have been forgotten for a night or two of revelry, they would return as Australia counted the cost – human, economic, emotional and psychological – of a conflict that had brought the 17-year-old federation to its knees and effectively crippled a large part of a generation of men.
Sydney, a city of brazen beauty, of vivid harbour, clear skies, surf and yellow sands, partied hard for days. On 11 November the commonwealth declared that Tuesday 12 November was a national public holiday but, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported, “the state minister favoured Wednesday, and did not learn the federal intentions in time to alter the decision and give legal effect to a closing up on Tuesday”.
“So the upshot is that the people of New South Wales will have two holidays.”
The temporary capital of Australia in 1918 was still Melbourne (federal parliament did not open in Canberra until 1927), a city more introverted in character and European in style, externally at least, than the New South Wales capital.
Melbourne did not start celebrating the pending armistice on 8 November. Indeed, the momentum for the celebrations that greeted the official announcement of the end of hostilities built slowly, even cautiously, through the late afternoon of 11 November.
It is easy to imagine how news of the end of such a war would spread in viral fashion today. Twitter would be alive with rumours of an armistice and its terms, the negotiators under siege from media and news organisations competing to be the first to break any confirmed news of a settlement. It is harder to imagine how the news spread in the days before social media, widespread use of portable radios and home telephones, and television news.
However, the newspapers of the day describe a type of social bushfire that roared through Melbourne from the offices of the Age newspaper in Collins Street when a cablegram from America, announcing the armistice, was posted on the board outside the building at 7.20pm. Only about 100 people were milling around the newspaper building, waiting for any news. The cablegram from Britain would not be posted until much later in the evening.
On 12 November, the Age reported: “Men and women looked up at the board as if they could hardly believe what they read. There was no immediate demonstration but in some mysterious way the news travelled like lightning over the city and its significance was quickly grasped. People came hurrying towards Collins street, spreading the news on the way.”
It was typical, perhaps, of the Melburnian temperament that “doubts were expressed as to whether the message had been actually received, and all were intent upon seeing the wonderful words in black and white”. But soon, the paper reported, “telephone bells began to ring, and soon the exchange had to deal with a tremendous rush of calls”.
By 7.30pm the news had made its way to the Melbourne port, just as steamers were returning to dock. A sounding from the port’s siren “acted as the impromptu signal for a general celebration through the medium of steam throttles, for during the next half hour the bayside resounded to a giant chorus of siren-depot whistles of all types and tones”.
Passengers rushed into the city, joining tens of thousands of people who converged on the central business district by tram and train from the suburbs. The cafes emptied and closed while theatre performances were interrupted so that news of the armistice could be delivered to the patrons.
At Her Majesty’s theatre the news was given from the stage at the rising of the curtain, while actors and the band led the audience in renditions of The Marseillaise (sung in French), The Star-spangled Banner and God Save the King.
Out on the streets the human crush resulted in wild scenes and some injuries to those who fell and were accidentally trampled. The crowd kept singing Over There, Keep the Home Fires Burning, Pack Up Your Troubles and Rule Britannia.
The bells of St Patrick’s cathedral in East Melbourne sounded all evening. But they could scarcely be heard against the din of the crowd.
“A spirit of abandon marked the whole night’s proceedings, and the exuberance sometimes led to wild doings,” the Age reported.
As traffic slowed to a near standstill, such wild doings included the commandeering of several trams.
According to the Age, “Some irrepressible spirits … lifted the vehicles from their lines, and carried or wheeled them to unaccustomed places and used them as vantage points from which to view the scenes in the streets.”
There were similar extravagant scenes of revelry in country towns and other cities across Australia. The war was over. But it was not the end of the terrible war news.
For day after day, week after week, the newspapers would have front pages listing more and more names of the Australian missing and dead, some of whom lost their lives just hours or days before the ceasefire came into effect at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
What did the soldiers think of the armistice?
Beaumont writes, “Certainly there was excitement and intoxicating joy. There was relief at having survived, but there was also a sense of loss, anti-climax, dislocation and anxiety about the future.”
For those whose relatives had died, the future was one of reckoning and grief – imbued with a range of other emotions, including pride.
While researching his book Victoria at War, the military and social historian Michael McKernan came across the story of the service of commemoration outside Parliament House, Melbourne, on the first Sunday after the 11th.
McKernan says: “Huge crowds attended, but not Catholics … they had their own pontifical solemn High Mass at St Pat’s [cathedral] at which Bishop Phelan preached an objectionable sermon claiming that only Catholic soldiers could be certain of salvation. As a woman walked away from the affair a journalist heard her say to a friend, ‘I lost seven nephews to the war, but I am so proud’.”