How World War I soldiers celebrated the Armistice

Veterans Day falls on Nov. 11 every year for a reason. That’s the anniversary of the 1918 signing and implementation of the armistice agreement that ended World War I.

Originally, the holiday celebrated just the sacrifices of those who served in The Great War, but the American version of the holiday grew to include a celebration of all veterans, and the name was changed from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.

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American soldiers with the 64th Regiment, 7th Infantry Division, celebrate the end of World War I. (Photo: U.S. National Archive)

But for troops in 1918, Armistice Day was a mixed bag. Some engaged in a boisterous, days-long party, but others couldn’t believe it was over and continued fighting out of shock and disbelief.

Most of the partying was done in the cities. In London — a city subjected to numerous German air raids during the war — the festivities broke out and spilled into the streets. On Nov. 12, 1918, the Guardian reported that Londoners and Allied soldiers heard the news just before 11 a.m.

Almost immediately, people began firing signal rockets. Church bells and Big Ben tolled for much of the day to celebrate the news. And some gun crews began firing their weapons to add to the noise.

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Londoners celebrate the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Parades marched down the street, and American soldiers waving the Stars and Stripes were cheered by the English citizens. The English waved their flags and stuffed themselves into cars and taxis to drive around and celebrate. One car built for four passengers was packed with 27, counting multiple people clinging to the roof.

The city filled with marchers, many waving brand new Union Jack flags. Drinking was mostly limited to the hotels and restaurants, but the crowds pushed their way to 10 Downing Street and yelled for speeches from the Prime Minister.

At Buckingham Palace, chanting throngs of people demanded to see the king. George V appeared on the balcony with Queen Victoria and Princess Mary.

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Crowds outside Buckingham Palace in London after the cessation of hostilities in World War I. (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

But on the front lines, American and Allied soldiers were much less exuberant. While some units, such as the 64th Infantry Regiment featured in the top photo, began celebrating that very day. Others, like the artillerymen near U.S. Army Col. Thomas Gowenlock, just kept fighting.

The radio call announcing the surrender went out at approximately 6 a.m. on Nov. 11. Gowenlock drove from the 1st Division headquarters to the front to see the war end at 11 a.m. when the armistice went into effect.

I drove over to the bank of the Meuse River to see the finish. The shelling was heavy and, as I walked down the road, it grew steadily worse. It seemed to me that every battery in the world was trying to burn up its guns. At last eleven o’clock came — but the firing continued. The men on both sides had decided to give each other all they had — their farewell to arms. It was a very natural impulse after their years of war, but unfortunately many fell after eleven o’clock that day.

The fighting continued for most of the day, only ending as night fell. Around warming fires, the soldiers tried to grapple with peace.

As night came, the quietness, unearthly in its penetration, began to eat into their souls. The men sat around log fires, the first they had ever had at the front. They were trying to reassure themselves that there were no enemy batteries spying on them from the next hill and no German bombing planes approaching to blast them out of existence. They talked in low tones. They were nervous.

Australian Col. Percy Dobson noted the same shocked reaction among his troops in France on Nov. 11.

It was hard to believe the war was over. Everything was just the same, tired troops everywhere and cold drizzly winter weather- just the same as if the war were still on.