On the evening 11th of November, 1918, everyone in Tasmania was holding their breath. At any moment, news of the Armistice – the official end of the War – was expected. Every minute must have been agony. In an era where news could flash from one end of the world to the other in mere seconds, when men had taken to the skies, when pictures could move, and while men were still dying in the mud of Flanders, this waiting was torture. But it was all you could do – stand outside the newspaper offices, bite your nails, and wait, wait, wait. This story is about the moment that the wait stopped, and a roar of joy erupted before the guns on the Western Front finally fell silent.
‘Are there any recruits in the crowd? Because if there are, you are too late!’
In Hobart, at 8:30 pm, a message was posted on the war news board at the Mercury‘s office in Macquarie Street – a wire from America that the Armistice had been signed. The cheers started immediately, and the crowd began to swell. People made for the Town-hall from all directions, and in a few minutes the front of the “The Mercury” Office was besieged by thousands of people anxious to see the messages for themselves.’ Though there was no official word from the government that peace had been declared, nevertheless someone started firing the guns at Queen’s Battery in celebration, and after each massive boom, the crowd cheered and cheered.
More people arrived. Then, the newspaper reported, ‘the crowd got impatient to commence the demonstration proper,’ and burst into song, running through (and sometimes singing at the same time) the national anthem, followed by ‘Rule Brittania,’ ‘The Marseillaise’ ,’It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. By now it was nearly impossible to move through Macquarie Street. The Union Jack was raised on the balcony outside Town Hall, and cheers went up for the boys at the front, for the parents who had sent their children to the front, for the King, for Field Marshal Haig, for Marshal Foch. Trams from the outskirts of the city brought more people. Somehow the official Union Jack came down in the melee, and a new one was borrowed from the crowd when a returned soldier bellowed, “We fought for the flag, we want to see it flying!”
The Hobart recruiting officer, Lieut Hurst, made it to the impromptu podium opposite the Mercury office, and shouted, “are there any recruits in the crowd? Because if there are, you are too late.” – more roars and cheers – which encouraged the lieutenant to add, “poor old Billy, he’s lost his job.” His mate next to him seized the megaphone, and shouted into it so that even those on the outskirts of the massive throng could hear him, “Don’t take any notice of Lieut. Hurst, he’s lost his job too!”
“The Bells of Peace – Who will Ever Forget Them?”
In Launceston, the Examiner reported that a huge crowd ‘on the tiptoe of expectancy’ had been waiting for two hours ‘with their eyes glued on the war news board outside the “Examiner” office,’ and the words on everyone’s lips were, ‘what’s the news?’ The crowd stretched from Charles Street to the fire station, ‘and so dense was it that the trams were unable to pass through it.’ When the unofficial message broke at 9:30 pm the thunderous cheers started. Half an hour later, a messenger in a red uniform pushed his way through the crowd, heading for the open door of the newspaper office, and then new signs went up in the window – signs in huge black letters “Official – Armistice Signed” and the main fire bell started ringing. The paper reported:
…an absolutely deafening roar went up – a roar that will remain green in the memory of those who heard it for as long as life lasts: a roar that gave vent to feelings of great joy, and a roar that was repeated again and again, until, as the crowd began to swell in numbers, to hear oneself yell – let alone speak – was impossible.
The cinemas opened their doors and people poured into the streets – people of every age, from babies to the elderly. All the hospital patients who could walk made for the exits and joined the crowd – ‘they mingled together, waving flags, blowing trumpets, yelling, singing, whistling, rattling kerosene cans, ringing bells, or making a row with every conceivable article that was capable of contributing to the noise.’ Bands struck up, one after another, and flares were let off from the rooftops. Wounded soldiers grasped each other, holding each other up as they moved through the crowd, and young women rushed up to them to embrace them while others clapped them on the back and shook their hands. The street party kicked on until at least 2 a.m. – no children went to bed early that night – when someone lit a bonfire out of packing cases in Brisbane Street.
Over the next few days, the newspapers were themselves crowded with news of crowds, jostling along with news of revolution in Germany and the Kaiser’s abdication, and ominous news of the developing ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic that would take so many more lives. More celebrations, more services, more parties and more mourning would follow in the coming days, weeks and months (and check back here for more stories about the celebrations of peace) leading up to Peace Day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed (and the war officially came to an end) on 28 June, 1919.
But let us leave you with this moment of peace that came immediately after the wild, sheer joy of the 11th of November – this photograph of Hobartians having a picnic, looking at all the schoolchildren of Hobart, dressed in white, and forming the word “VICTORY” on the lawns of Government House.
Learn, Reflect and Remember:
Check out this wonderful, evocative short film about the life of Sir Henry Seymour Baker, based on his diaries and photographs in the collections of the Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office, and made by our talented colleague, Anthony Black.
You might also like to have a look at the list of resources we have on Tasmania and Tasmanians during the Great War: Tasmania and World War I (Libraries Tasmania)
If you’re in Hobart this weekend, you can head along to The Sound of Peace Street Party (Hobart, Sunday 11 November 2018)
Or check out these events in your local community: