191. Armistice celebrations in the Shire of Alberton

The Armistice was signed at 5.00am on Monday 11/11/18 (Paris time) with all hostilities to cease six hours later (11.00am). Word reached Australia Monday night and the next morning Tuesday 12/11/18 Australians woke to newspaper headlines that declared, for example, Germany Accepts Defeat. Armistice Signed on Monday. Completer Surrender (The Argus Tuesday 12/11/18) and The War Ends. Germany Surrenders. Armistice Terms Signed. (The Age, Tuesday 12/11/18)

In line with its normal publication schedule, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative did not appear until Wednesday 13/11/18. The headline (below) which appeared in the edition noted that the local paper had posted the information of the War’s end, at its office in Yarram, as soon as it came though on the Monday night. Amazingly, the same edition also pointed out that, in fact, the Armistice was celebrated locally – and also very prematurely – from around midday on Friday November 8.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 13/11/1918. Courtesy NLA

Friday November 8

According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, word reached the town late morning on Friday 8 November that the Armistice had been signed. In an article with the headlines, Victory Celebrated. Premature Owing to Unfounded Rumour. Thorough Enjoyment Nevertheless. … the paper traced the source of the rumour first to the Alberton Railway Station and then to telegrams, including one from the (Melbourne) Stock Exchange. The signing of the Armistice was expected imminently and the anxious anticipation in the community meant that these reports were taken as fact. As the paper tellingly put it,

by 11 o’clock townspeople could not further restrain themselves. Flags were flown from every vantage point, stores were raided for the Allied colors, and none could settle down to work. Gaily bedecked motor cars were in evidence, and in their exuberance of spirit, owners clothed their canines in the colors. One dog hoisted a miniature Union Jack whenever he raised his tail. The school children were let loose, and headed by a few “instrumentalists,” who tin-whistled no particular tune, formed a procession through the town. They sang songs, and spectators cheered. The whole was a pleasing spectacle quite spontaneous, and worthy of the town.

However, an urgent telegram from the editor (A J Rossiter) to Reuters to confirm that the Armistice had been signed brought the response that this was not the case. At the same time, there was also a report from the State Department in Washington that the Armistice had not yet been signed. At this point, as the paper put it, ‘enthusiasm subsided a little’. But there was still considerable excitement and confusion. Rossiter blamed The Age for misleading headlines that day and noted that people became convinced that the Commonwealth Censor was trying to withhold the news. To add to the tension The Age itself, on the same day – Friday 8 November – reported on a rumour – ‘peace had been declared’ – that had spread wildly at Flemington Racecourse the day before, Thursday 7 November. On the Friday, there were more rumours about all leave from Broadmeadows being cancelled. Also on the Friday, word reached Yarram that the hotels in Melbourne had been closed, adding strength to the rumour of the War’s end. The hotels in Yarram remained open on the Friday and, according to the paper, there were no incidents as patrons celebrated in the ‘old way’. Word was also coming through by now that that on both the Continent and in America the victory was being celebrated.

Against this background the President of the Shire – Cr Barlow – decreed that local celebrations were to go ahead that night (Friday 8 November), including a bonfire on the show ground. The President’s decision, according to the paper, ‘led to criticism in some places’ but the paper also made it clear that the decision was widely supported. The paper also supported the decision, even if, strictly speaking, the Armistice itself had not been signed.

… but the children and young folks having made up their minds for the fun, the president was right in his ruling, while the spirit was in the air. There was sufficient cause for rejoicing, even though the armistice was not signed. The British Fleet had sailed through the Dardanelles and taken Constantinople, Turkey’s armies had surrendered unconditionally, and Austria, too, had surrendered. Surely this was sufficient for all round rejoicing, without the final scratch of the pen to complete absolute victory. Victory was near enough, at all events, for heartfelt rejoicing, and the people could restrain themselves no longer.

So that Friday night – November 8 – the town celebrated, three days before the actual Armistice. As the paper described,

The town at night was thronged, and wore an unusually gay appearance. Shortly after 8 o’clock a monster procession, headed by the Town Band and the Fire Brigade, moved from James-st., along Commercial-st., to the show ground. While the people were assembling the bonfire was lit, when could be seen the large attendance, numbering with the children upwards of 2,000.
Unfortunately, there was a shortage of fireworks on the night. Once the crowd settled in the grand stand, proceedings began. The ‘Doxology’ was the first item sung, followed by ‘Rule Britannia’, the ‘National Anthem’ and then ‘God Save Our Splendid Men’.

Cr Barlow and Revs Williams and Walklate then addressed the crowd. They commented on the Allied victory, and asked the people to thank God for deliverance from the hand of the Hun.
The speakers were duly cheered.

However at some point that night it must have seemed strange to those there that they were celebrating victory before the Armistice itself had been signed. The newspaper report noted that Cr Barlow told everyone there that once the Armistice had been definitely signed the Government would ensure that the news was wired to every shire in the nation. The realisation that they had been too fast of the mark must have eventually sunk in. This probably explains why the actual speeches that night were limited; and, essentially, there was not much more to do after the short speech by the two reverend gentlemen. As the paper put it,

For an hour afterwards the crowd lingered on the showground, entertained by the band, which gave a programme of well-played music.

Monday (night) November 11

Saturday and Sunday must have been quiet days as neither was mentioned in the paper’s report. But then on Monday night, when planning was underway in the shire hall for another (proper) celebration once the Armistice had been signed, word finally did come through that … an armistice had been signed, and the war had terminated at 6 o’clock that morning.

Finally, it was all for real, and it is clear from the report that there was an incredible release of emotions. There was also a dramatic sense of witnessing a unique historical event. The newspaper’s report captures the wild scenes as they unfolded in a country town. There is the overpowering sense of victory, and the attendant triumph of righteousness. Importantly, the Armistice was never seen in the strict sense of an armistice – The Age on 12/11/18 provided the precise military definition –  but as a certain Allied victory.

The welcome news was conveyed by the “Standard” representative to the meeting [then planning the real celebration for the Armistice], and the meeting appropriately sang the National Anthem and God Save Our Splendid Men. … A big crowd assembled outside the “Standard” office, where the news was posted, and song and cheers broke the stillness of the night. Minor bells tinkled, and the heavy toll of the fire bell, and the boom of Dr Rutter’s cannon announced to people several miles out that the big historic event had been achieved – the Hun was defeated. The town at once gave itself up to rejoicing. Fireworks, too, flashed the glad news, and never has such an enthusiastic scene been witnessed in Yarram. Mrs. Dwyer thoughtfully ran her piano on to the footpath, and for an hour or more a street concert was held. Never have patriotic songs been more lustily sung, and never have the words of “Rule Britannia” and the “Marseillaise ” had such significance. Britain had “ruled the waves” and with the gallant French the two nations had “fought on to victory” with the other brave Allies. Excitement was intense. The severe tensions of the past few agonising years had been relieved, and a thankful spirit prevailed. It was an historic and memorable event, such as will never again be witnessed by the present generation. The world war was over, and the blessings of a righteous peace at last vouchsafed. The doors of Thompson’s hall were thrown open by Mr. Toft, who invited all to participate in enjoyment, and for several hours, till the wee sma’ oors, (sic) young folks enjoyed a dance and general hilarity. It was a night that will never be forgotten.

Tuesday November 12

The next day, Tuesday 12 November, was declared a public holiday across Australia. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative reported that in Yarram a combined thanksgiving service was held in Thompson’s hall. The presiding ministers were Rev Opper (Church of England) and Rev Walklate (Methodist), with the Rev. Mr Williams (Presbyterian) as an apology. The paper described the service as ‘largely attended.’

The service opened with the National Anthem and ‘Our Splendid Men’. Other hymns included, ‘O God Our Help’, ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way’, ‘Lest We Forget’, and ‘Jesu, Lover of My Soul’.
As per usual, the service was Protestant. According to the clergymen it might have taken God four long years but He had finally awarded the Allies the victory for which they had struggled. They been victorious because they had been fighting for principles. Their battle had been of a higher order.

All through the war the Allies had shown their inflexible determination to gain the victory, and nothing could lure them from the aim which they achieved. They set out to gain right over might, spiritual over material. They have been fighting for principles enshrined in the Lord Jesus Christ, and the patriotic church of Christendom has spoken with no uncertain voice. Our duty therefore is to return thanks to God, it would be base ingratitude if we refused or neglected to give thanks to the Great Ruler who has given us the great victory.

It is an open question as to how many at the service that day truly believed the God had finally intervened on their behalf and delivered them the victory. However, it was a religio-political line that had been preached consistently for the preceding 4 years and it would have seemed perfectly apt, even credible. Also, there was certainly no doubt that the ‘patriotic church of Christendom’ – as opposed, presumably, to the more politically and religiously ambivalent, if not outright suspect, church of Rome – had been beating a very loud drum for the four years of the War and it now intended to proclaim its (proprietary) victory.

That night (Tuesday), there was another celebration at the show ground. This was a decidedly more lively affair than the thanksgiving service. It was also a more genuine spectacle than the premature affair that had been staged on the Friday night. The celebration started about 8.00 o’clock with a procession of school children. Dr Rutter’s (home-made) cannon was pressed in to service again. The Royal Salute was played on a bugle and the usual ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ were sung by everyone there. A score of patriotic songs followed. A paragraph from the paper captures the mood,

Two bonfires were ablaze, in which were burnt the effigies of the Kaiser, Crown Prince and von Tirpiz. Indeed, they were blown up. The grand stand was electrically lighted, and fireworks shot skywards at frequent intervals. The Town Band played selections on the grand stand. All round an hilarious time was spent.

There were of course significant limits to communication at the time, and limits even to the range of Dr Rutter’s cannon. Consequently, news of the Armistice did not reach some townships until early the next day. The following report from the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of Wednesday 13 November describes how the news reached Toora, about 40 kilometres from Yarram.

The news that Germany had submitted to the Allies’ terms of peace, which was officially wired by the Lord Mayor to Major H. A. Jacobs, Toora, first thing on Tuesday morning [12/11/18], spread like wildfire and the streets were quickly thronged with cheering crowds. Church, school and other bells were started ringing, that at the Church of England being manned by a group of school boys who rhymed their peals to a tune of Peace, Peace, Peace, while buildings became immediately ablaze with flags and banners of all nationalities bar enemy. The school children, to whom a holiday had been granted, were soon abroad, hurrahing and hurrahing louder and more vigorously than all. Heavy rain falling at the time quite failed to damp the ardour of the people’s receipt of the glad tidings that peace had been declared for the time being, Germany having signed the Allies’ terms for an armistice, and that hostilities were to cease at dawn of the previous morn (sic). The joy was touchingly near, real and sincere.

The Armistice was also celebrated in the local (primary) schools. The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative (22/11/18) featured a detailed report on celebrations at the Devon North State School held on the Wednesday 20/11/18.

It would have been perfectly natural that celebrations took place in the local (state) primary school. As we have seen repeatedly, the local state school was a critical focus for the War effort, not just in terms of fund raising and other drives to provide comfort and support for the troops but also in the way the narrative of the War was employed – by teachers, inspectors, town elders, local Protestant clergy, the school governing body, the local press – to reinforce amongst the children the sense of loyalty to the Empire and the Nation. The values laboured were those of duty, loyalty, honour and sacrifice. The report in the local paper described how the speakers there that day emphasised that final victory had come from unwavering commitment to such basic values.

It was community celebration:

On Wednesday afternoon the parents and children of Devon North met at the school to express their delight at the successful termination of the European war. The large attendance evidenced the thoroughly loyal spirit, mingled with the deep feelings of relief.

After the National Anthem was sung, the importance of the occasion was explained to the children. They were then warmly praised for their … sustained efforts in support of all war movements. They were also urged to take pride in the school’s long honor roll which featured the names of approximately 60 former students.

That afternoon, the comments made in relation to sacrifice, patriotic loyalty and Imperial duty were virtually identical to those made when the first volunteers left the train station at Alberton in September 1914.

The honor roll, with some 60 names, testified to the loyalty of the residents, and the children were requested to reverence it and cherish the memory of those whose names appeared on it. Should the Empire at any future time demand assistance he [The president of the Shire, Cr. Barlow] was certain that the call would be just as readily responded to. His earnest request was that the children should strive to be worthy of their glorious heritage, and that they should do their utmost to maintain the Empire in the proud position it occupied today.

Cr. Barlow also laboured the theme of national – and imperial – greatness being based on ideals, values and principles. The enemy, on the other hand, was claimed to have pursued only material and worldly things.

In closing, the Shire President could not resist an appeal to the higher authority.

… so long as it [the British Empire] adhered to its present principles, its position was assured. Nations that had based their greatness merely on worldly matters had to-day even their names blotted out; therefore, they [the students] were requested to entrust themselves at all times to the Supreme Ruler.

Presumably, the Supreme Ruler was a reference to God the Almighty rather than George V., even if, as head of the Church of England, King George was the ‘Supreme Anglican’.

The ceremony finished with a mix of formality, conviviality, fun and, of course, the mandatory session of sports.

After the saluting of “The Flag”, afternoon tea was supplied and a programme of sports proceeded with.

All the speech making associated with the immediate local celebrations of the Armistice described the victory in terms of the Empire’s unconquered greatness and the associated triumph of its religion, Protestantism. Essentially, this was a perspective that looked back, to the world of pre-August 1914. All declared that the War had been won by the right side, with the right history, the right religion and the right values. Therefore, according to this logic, order would now be restored. The past could become again the present. Unfortunately, the world, the Empire and Australia itself had changed far too much for that to happen.

References

The Argus

The Age

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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