Remembrance Day: How Australia celebrated the first Armistice Day 100 years ago


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November 11, 2018 05:00:00

As gunfire ceased on the Western Front on the morning of November 11, 1918, Australia’s first war correspondent Charles Bean observed “the gates to the future silently opened”.

The armistice which secured the end of World War I had been signed at dawn, marking the conclusion of a four-year conflict that had claimed more than 60,000 Australian lives.

Confirmation would take several hours to reach Australia, where crowds were gathering in the streets at the first whispers of the news.

In every town and city, people rejoiced at the end of ‘the war to end all wars’ — and the beginning of a new chapter in Australia’s history.

‘Wild’ antics in Sydney and Melbourne

Sydney had celebrated the end of the war prematurely thanks to a false alarm on November 9.

“There was big outpouring of emotion and excitement,” said Ashley Ekins, head of military history at the Australian War Memorial.

“And then again, just a couple of days later on the 11th, the news came that it was true.

“It was a wild day. And when a public holiday was declared for the 14th of November, it meant that they actually got two.

“They kept the pubs and the liquor stores closed during that period so things didn’t really get out of hand.”

It was a different story in Melbourne, where the exuberant crowds could not be contained.

“The news was received and church bells began to ring out along with factory hooters,” Mr Ekins said.

“The crowds ran wildly out of control in the city. They derailed tram cars and crashed one through the front window of an office building.

“A lot of people [were] breaking into barricaded stores and stealing fireworks.

“There was even an appeal for people not to explode fireworks in the interests of invalided soldiers, and particularly those suffering shell shock.”

Theatre performances stopped in Adelaide

In Adelaide, people had been gathered outside newspaper and post offices waiting for news since the early evening of November 11.

Pauline Cockrill from the History Trust of South Australia said it was around 7:30pm when the first newspaper reported the fighting had stopped.

“By 10:30 that night, the whole of Adelaide’s streets were milling with people just waiting for the news to be announced,” she said.

“The premier gave an unofficial announcement outside Parliament House.

“As soon as the news came out they were singing patriotic songs, going up and down [the streets] with flags. There was a band that had been practising outside the railway station so they joined in as well.”

Cinema and theatre performances were stopped as the news broke.

“There was just jubilation,” Ms Cockrill said.

“Everyone was very excited and singing and dancing — just having a good time. They were relieved after over four years of war.”

The celebrations were followed by a public holiday on November 14 that included church services, victory parades and the sounding of The Last Post.

News travelled down railway line

Parties continued in rural towns as news of the armistice reached them from the cities.

“The news went down to the post office or down the railway lines,” Ms Cockrill said.

“People had gone to bed but as soon as they heard the news they got out of bed and had these impromptu tin can bands — people just banging kerosene tins and walking up and down the streets singing patriotic songs.”

In Mount Gambier, the official announcement came on November 12.

Local historian Graham Roulstone wrote in 2016 that a crowd had gathered in the main street on the evening of the 11th as rumours started to reach the regional city by bush telegram.

“The mayor, Mr Renfrey … instructed the Town Hall bell to be rung but cautioned those gathered there to approach the news with caution, in case it turned out to be false,” he wrote.

“The crowd … began to disperse about 11:00pm, though others arrived later and so the town remained active until about 4:00am the following morning.”

At midday on November 12, Mayor Renfrey read a formal announcement to 4,000 people gathered in front of the Town Hall that the war had ended.

The rural town of Canungra, in south-east Queensland, did not hold its official celebrations until November 30.

But impromptu celebrations started as soon as locals heard the news, according to Canungra resident Muriel Curtis who published a book on the district’s history in 1975.

“The news was telephoned to Canungra and such was the relief that people celebrated then and there,” Ms Curtis wrote.

“The mill hands stopped work and the whole head of steam was blown off by tying down the whistles, startling the countryside for miles around.”

‘Funeral’ for the Kaiser

The rural Victorian town of Kaniva chose to delay their formal celebrations until 1919 when most of their troops had come home.

Resident Bruce Meyer said the small community had been hit hard by the deaths of locals.

“There are hardly any families that didn’t have somebody that went overseas,” he said.

“I can look at four relatives that were killed in the First World War and that’s pretty common.

“Probably those 20-odd families that had people die in it, they still had to get themselves together.”

On July 19, 1919, the town held a huge party which included the staging of a mock funeral for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The day was celebrated throughout the British empire as Peace Day, in recognition of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles that had officially ended the war the month before.

Parties weren’t the end of troubles

The celebrations, no matter how joyful, could not make up for the devastating impact of the war, according to Ashley Ekins.

“The losses, of course, were extreme — 60,000 men that really couldn’t be easily replaced,” he said.

“In many ways, Australia in the interim years was a nation in mourning.”

Still left to arrange was the huge task of bringing troops home — an exercise that would take nearly a year.

Once home, they would be faced with the challenge of readjusting to civilian life.

“The fact was these men came home, mostly, completely changed by the experience,” Mr Ekins said.

“They had been out of sight — never out of mind — on the other side of the world, fighting a war that was probably inconceivable to most Australians.

“The people at home had never really known what those men had done.”

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