Canada and The Armistice

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CraigBaird

For four years the community of Olds, Alberta, like so many other communities across Canada, had seen its young men put on uniforms and journey overseas to fight. Some soldiers returned home unharmed, some returned changed forever, and some never came home at all.

Then, one cold November afternoon citizens of Olds dropped everything and began to celebrate. A huge bonfire was lit in the centre of town and locals gathered around it. Above the flames Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany was burned in effigy. As the fire slowly turned to embers, town leaders called for more material.

Before long, wooden crates were piled up to help fuel the fire through the night as residents celebrated. As daytime turned to night the mayor spoke, as did Dr. Michael Clark,[1]  the town doctor, bringing welcomed words…The war was over.

The celebration grew  but soon people began to whisper as confusion  spread. It turns out The Great War was not over.

At least… not yet

I’m Craig Baird…And this is Canadian History Ehx!

Turns out the residents of Olds, Alberta were celebrating a week early and to understand how we got there I first need to take you back to June 28, 1914.

That’s when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the throne of Austria-Hungarywas assassinated  in Sarajevo, the provincial capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, formally annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. No one could have predicted his death would cause a domino effect  that would lead the world to the most destructive war up to that point. In Alberta, the Hillcrest mine disaster that killed 189 miners  in the Crowsnest Pass a week earlier was top of mind.

In Ontario, James Whitney was preparing for the election on June 29, where he and his Conservatives would cruise to a fourth straight majority government. In Saskatchewan, a four-month-old named William Ormond Mitchell was just beginning a life that would lead him to become one of Canada’s greatest writers. In Nova Scotia, Hank Snow was about to enter his second month of life, which would take him to huge heights of stardom as one of the greatest musical artists to ever come out of Canada. In New Brunswick, Henry Emmerson, the former premier, was in his 14th year of serving in Parliament, unaware that within 10 days, he would be dead after a long illness.

For most Canadians, it was a pleasant Sunday as the early summer warmth spread across the land.

The next day, The Ottawa Journal reported “Austrian Heir and Wife Shot to Death On Visit To Bosnian Capital.”

With the assassination, the delicate geopolitical balance of Europe fell like a house of cards. After he killing of the Archduke, Austria-Hungary, with its historic ally Germany,[2]  sent an ultimatum to Serbia’s government, whom they believed was behind the killing. Serbia – a Slavic nation-, in return, met each demand but Austria-Hungary declared war, nonetheless. Russia, who saw itself as the protector of the Slavic nations, mobilized its troops.

Germany, in response, demanded promises of peace from Russia and France. When no answer was given, Germany declared war on Russia on Aug. 1.

Two days later, Germany declared war on France. France then turned to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, for support.

At the time, the UK was not required to do so as there was no formal treaty with the French, just an informal agreement. Then, on Aug. 4, Germany invaded France by moving through Belgium, which was a neutral country. In response to this, the UK demanded Germany withdraw from Belgium.

At 5 p.m. that day, with no answer from Germany, the UK declared war. The British government in London was responsible for the foreign affairs not only of the British colonies and protectorates but also of the five Dominions, so its declaration of war was made on behalf of the whole British Empire.

Canada was one of the Dominions that meant whether they wanted to or not, Canadians had entered into the First World War.

For the next four years, 620,000 people, in a country of eight million, were mobilized into the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the navy and the Royal Air Force.

Among our troops, 70 would be awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour in the British Empire. Many of those recipients received the honour posthumously for the brave actions that saved many, but cost the recipient his life. Of the 620,000 who left home, 67,000 never returned and 173,000 were wounded to various degrees. A full 39 per cent of the troops who went over would be listed as casualties.

It was a long four years, and not a single family, town, or city was spared the heartache, worry and tragedy of having someone fighting in the trenches of France. During those years, Canada would be changed forever, and the country would deal with more tragedy and deep division.

On Dec. 6, 1917, the Halifax Explosion decimated Canada’s coastal city when  the French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc collided with the Norwegian vessel SS Imo. The Mont-Blanc, laden with high explosives, caught fire and exploded killing nearly 2,000 people instantly and injuring thousands more in the largest manmade explosion until the arrival of atomic bombs.

Worse for the country as a whole was the Conscription Crisis.

With hundreds of thousands of Canadian men going overseas to fight in the trenches and enlistment numbers dropping, there was a need for a steady stream of new recruits.

That meant conscription.

The idea was favoured in English Canada, but deeply unpopular in French Canada.

On Aug. 29, 1917, the Military Service Act passed, allowing the government to conscript men aged 20 to 45 across the country if necessary.

That led to riots and demonstrations throughout Quebec and it led the provincial government to openly talk about leaving Confederation.

Conscription wouldn’t be instituted though until after the December 1917 election.

The Conservatives and some Liberals had formed into the Unionist government for the election. The Unionist Government was formed in response to the war, to portray a united front in Parliament. It was primarily made up of the Conservative Party, with several members of the Liberal Party who supported conscription. Those who did not support conscription stayed with Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal Party.

Two new laws had also come into place that allowed the government to swing votes in its favour in the lead up to the 1917 election. The first law was under the Military Voters Act, which allowed soldiers in Europe to choose the riding they wanted their vote to be counted in, or they could allow the party to choose the riding. This gave government officials the ability to guide the votes of soldiers, who were strongly in favour of conscription, to ridings where it would be more useful.

Servicemen would simply be given a ballot that said “government” or “opposition”.

This allowed the government to use 400,000 votes to influence the election in their favour.

When the votes were tallied, 80 per cent of soldiers on the front lines voted in favour of the ruling Sir Robert Borden government[7] . Sir Robert Borden had been prime minister since 1910, leading the Conservative Party through the first years of the war.

The other law was the Wartime Elections Act.

This Act would remove the vote from anyone, including those who had lived in Canada for a decade, who were deemed to be enemy aliens. Anyone who had arrived in Canada after 1902 lost the right to vote if they came from a country like Germany or Austria. This group of people typically voted Liberal, and it would result in a huge loss of votes for Liberals, especially in the Prairie Provinces. The Act also gave the vote to female relatives of soldiers overseas, who were more likely to vote for the Conservatives and conscription.

With the odds stacked in his favour, Borden and his Unionist government headed into the December 1917 election confident in a win and win they did. Following the election, 125,000 Canadians, 25 per cent of those who were eligible, were conscripted into service but only 24,000 made it to the front lines.

In Quebec, support for the Unionists, and primarily Conservatives, would be decimated for the next 25 years, forever reshaping the political landscape of Canada. The country was divided but as the battles raged in Europe a national identity was forged in the mud of Vimy Ridge and then solidified  during the 100 Days Offensive.

And soon it would all be over

On Sept. 29, 1918, the German Supreme Army Command informed Kaiser Wilhelm II that the military situation facing Germany was hopeless[8] . The feeling of hopelessness had come about as the Americans had entered the war and the 100 Days Offensive was nearing success as the Allies pushed into German lines, driving the German troops back towards the border.

Four days later, Prince Maximilian of Baden was appointed as the Chancellor of Germany with the order to negotiate an armistice. On Oct. 5, the German government sent a message that it was ready to negotiate terms. On Nov. 8, 1918, the German delegation crossed the front lines in five cars and were escorted for ten hours across the devastated landscape of Northern France to a private train parked in the Forest of Compiegne.

Negotiations continued for the next three days in this train car and then, at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the Armistice was agreed upon. The Armistice came into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918.

At 10:57 George Lawrence Price of Falmouth, of Nova Scotia was shot by a German sniper as he stepped out of a house into the street in Ville-sur-Haine, Belgium.

A Belgian nurse pulled him to safety but died one minute later. He is the last soldier of the British Empire to die in the First World War.

Arthur Goodmurphy[9] , a fellow soldier who served with Price, stated that Price decided to make sure there were no Germans hidden across from where their group had been told to halt and wait. Upon hearing of Price’s death, the officer in charge angrily yelled that the war was over.

Goodmurphy simply said, “Poor old Price. He never knew that it was over you know. He was just doing his job.”

Thanks to the railroad and telegraph news of the end of the war trickled to communities across Canada,

In an arrangement between the Ottawa Citizen, and the Ottawa Electric and Hydro-Electric Companies prior to the end of the war it was decided that when peace was declared, all the electric lights in the city would blink four times.

Ottawa was the first city in Canada to begin celebrations as citizens weree woken up when dozens of whistles at industrial plants began to blow two minutes after the news reached the capital

Celebrations started at 3 a.m. as people got out of bed and poured into the streets. At the Ottawa Journal building, dozens of people crowded around the building hoping for more news about the end of the war, the terms that had been agreed to and, most importantly, when the men were coming home.

Mr. J. Delaney, the president of Ottawa Musicians’ Union, gathered up musicians for an impromptu concert in the downtown core of the city. Residents without any instruments, or musical ability for that matter, grabbed pots and pans and joined them. They banged their makeshift instruments and cheered as they marched up and down the streets.

One man banged two frying pans together, while others used washboards to make music. Automobiles, tore through the streets with utter disregard for traffic regulations, decked out with flags, streamers and far too many occupants in each car who banged their pans and honked their horns.

On Sparks Street which is one block away from Parliament Hill and is considered one of Ottawa’s most historic streets, an enormous fire was lit with one soldier standing guard to ensure no one hurt themselves.

Fuel for the fire was gathered from the rear of the Sparks Street stores, and barrels, boxes and packing material was thrown onto the flames.

Before long, the flames were shooting as high as the trolley wires above and the crowd cheered as sparks soared over the roofs of the buildings, but thankfully nothing else ignited.

There was an explosion of joy on the sidewalk, four elderly women walked down the street carrying the Union Jack between them, and nearby a man sat in a carriage holding a white rooster in the air yelling “We’re cock o’ the walk”.

Among the throngs of people were those attempting to do their job, like the milkman who tried to drive down Sparks Street but was stopped by the crowd in the early morning hour.

The Toronto Mail and Empire reported how Canada’s largest city first found out about the end of the war.

On Parliament Street a man woke up at 4 a.m. and immediately began running to bang on his neighbors’ doors to announce the end of the war.

As people excitedly ran to celebrate, women ignored modesty of the time and wore the flimsiest of clothing, some covered only with a wrap or kimono, like they forgot the cold in the heat of their enthusiasm.”

Anyone attempting to drive down the world’s longest street was out of luck. Yonge Street was impassable due to crowds so thick a person could barely navigate their way through.

Most of the city took the day off, which added to the congestion on city streets. Only 100 of 1,500 employees of the Toronto Railway Company showed up for work. The few drivers who did go to work were accused of being pro-German since they were not part of celebrations.

Those who reported to work had to do it by foot…. and many of those were women as  telephone exchanges were overwhelmed with the number of phone calls going through. At Toronto’s police court, Magistrate Kingsford stated,

“This is not a day for punishment. It is a day for amnesty and pardon. I see many men are here for drunkenness. They are free. I hope they won’t abuse this leniency. And this order applies to all men charged with speeding, gambling and similar offences.”

The next day, the newspaper headline read “Drunks happy as larks.”

Across the city bonfires raged, on the streetcar tracks, wagons burned, and effigies of the Kaiser were destroyed by the dozen. firefighters responded to 55 calls in total

From coast-to-coast Canadians celebrated.

Montreal was in the midst of hosting its Victory Loan[12]  parade when news spread that the war was over. The Victory Loan program was extremely important during the war. Canadian citizens would buy Victory Loans, which helped to fund the war, while also giving residents something safe to invest their money in.

The Victory Loan parade soon became a victory parade led by acting Prime Minister Sir Thomas Whife down Sherbrooke Street.

Then Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden was on his way to England to be part of further negotiation related to the peace agreements.

Over in Kingston, Ontario before the community changed its name during the war to be more patriotic, celebrations were held in the market square. The Kingston Whig Standard described the scene,

“Everyone wore a smile. They came with a smile, kept on smiling and went home with a smile. What a wonderful old world this would be if the people could just go on through life smiling like this all the time.”

In Birtle, Manitoba, John Hatch was picking up mail at the train station when he heard that the war was over, and the Armistice had been signed.

He quickly delivered the mail to the post office and then ran to the Anglican church to ring the bells to announce the end of the war. In Vancouver Hastings Street was shut down for a parade as a public holiday was declared in the city. Lines of automobiles, decked out in banners and bunting, drove through the streets as the occupants cheered. The chaos of celebrations also led to injuries as residents were fueled by alcohol.

Donald McArthur was celebrating at 12:30 am when he jumped on the running board of a car. Out of nowhere a pedestrian walked out in front of the vehicle. The driver swerved and sent McArthur careening onto the pavement where he fractured his skull.

Nearby and at around the same time, a car drove up onto the sidewalk and ran over Alfred Sharp, breaking his leg. The vehicle then smashed into a plate glass window and a bicycle before it sped off from the scene.

In total there were 16 car accidents, 20 cars stolen and four people were arrested and taken to police headquarters to sleep off their celebration.

In Calgary, people began to gather at 8 a.m. local time and within a few hours the streets were filled with 10,000 people and automobiles throughout the downtown core. At city hall, it was standing room only, and steps and every other vantage point downtown was taken up.

At the post office, several fireworks were set off by residents with little regard for safety. As with many other places in Canada, effigies of the Kaiser were strung up and burned as residents danced around a massive bonfire. Edmonton, was alerted of the news by the scream of a railroad siren and the ringing of bells. Lt. Governor R.G. Brett spoke to a gathered crowd and said

“The people of Alberta are requested to keep this day proclaimed as a general holiday in spirit of devout patriotic thanksgiving for the successful termination of the Great War.”

Putting a damper in the celebrations was the Spanish Flu The pandemic broke out near the end of World War I, and as it swept through the world it shut down businesses and limited gatherings But it didn’t stop thousands from celebrating on Edmonton’s Jasper Avenue as automobiles were filled with people honking their horns, as bonfire burned.

When news of the Armistice arrived in Selkirk, Manitoba the entire town was closed down because of the pandemic.

Doors were closed, no public meetings were held, and people were encouraged to stay at home.

In Winnipeg, over 5,000 men who had fought in the front lines marched in Winnipeg in a Great War Veterans parade. Music was supplied, and veterans of past conflicts in South Africa, and on Canadian soil, joined in the march. An 18-pounder howitzer that had been captured in 1915 by the Canadians and  was on a tour as part of the celebrations. Then came news that r loved ones would be coming home

Many of the soldiers stationed overseas were forever changedby the horrors of the war.

They had seen their friends killed or wounded.

In many cases, they were wounded themselves.

Not only that, the trenches of Europe were brutal and gains were hard fought.

In fact the first modern use of chemical warfare happened during The Great War and the effects were devastating and horrific. One estimate states 10 to 15 per cent of Canadian soldiers suffered from shell shock, what we would call PTSD today. It is likely the number was far higher, but underreported due to the widespread and deeply misguided belief that shell shock was for cowards.

While Canada saw the war at an end, for those soldiers coming home their own battles were just beginning and it would take years for them to come to terms with The Great War.

That’s the conclusion of how World War I came to end but it was just the beginning for Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

Well before there was ever an Armistice Day, there was Decoration Day. Held on the weekend closest to June 2 it honoured  the Battle of Ridgeway Fought on June 2, 1866 in Ridgeway Ontario, the battle saw 850 Canadian go up against  750 Irish-American during the Fenian Raids. During the raids, nine Canadians were killed and 33 were wounded.

The first Decoration Day was held in 1890, when flowers were laid at the foot of the Canadian Volunteers Monument at Queen’s Park in Toronto to honour the 24th anniversary of the battle. From 1890 to 1918, Decoration Day was the day to remember those killed during the Fenian Raids, the North West Resistance and the First World War were honoured in Canada. After the First World War, MP Isaac Pedlow introduced a motion in the House of Commons to create Armistice Day, which would be held on the second Monday of November each year. On Nov. 6, 1919, an appeal was issued to King George V He stated that Armistice Day should honour the end of fighting, with two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

This was the case for two years until May 1921. That’s when in a very strange decision, an Act of Parliament declared that Armistice Day would be held on the Monday closest to Nov. 11 and that’s also when Thanksgiving would be celebrated.

Making one holiday and as expected, this was unpopular with both the public and veterans. Nonetheless, this new holiday continued until 1931 when MP A.W. Neil introduced a motion to have Armistice Day be observed on Nov. 11 and no other date. C.W. Dickie, another MP, then moved that the day be known as Remembrance Day, rather than Armistice Day, to put the emphasis on the soldiers, and not the end of the war.

That is how the Armistice Day Act was adopted, and  Nov. 11, 1931 marked the first ever Remembrance Day in Canada

Information from Library and Archives Canada, Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, A View of Birdtail, The First Hundred Years, Vancouver Daily World, Ottawa Journal, Winnipeg Tribune, Toronto.ca, Great War Centre, Toronto Star,


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