How Ontarians celebrated the end of the Great War in London, Paris, and (the city formerly known as) Berlin

Street parties broke out. Effigies of the kaiser were burned. But in Kitchener, the celebrations had a darker side
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on November 7, 2018
Newspaper headline
The London Free Press published news of the armistice at about 3 a.m. on November 11, 1918.

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Like their counterparts in Europe, residents of Ontario’s London and Paris celebrated the events of November 11, 1918: The armistice had been signed. The First World War was at an end. But while there were joy and relief in Kitchener — which until 1916 had been called Berlin — there was also tension fuelled by a strained relationship between the town’s British and German communities.

The countrywide party started prematurely on November 7, when a United Press report carried by many North American newspapers indicated, following a conversation with a U.S. official, that an armistice had been signed. The London Free Press hit the streets with a special edition at 12:30 p.m., reaching many readers on their lunch break. In Kitchener, two parades converged on city hall for a celebration that ended with a procession to Market Square, where a scarecrow nicknamed Fritz met a fiery end. When municipal officials and the press discovered that the conflict was not yet over, many concluded that the false alarm would serve as a good rehearsal for the eventual arrival of peace.

The news everyone had been hoping for finally arrived in the small hours of November 11. When the London Free Press published the news at 3 a.m., a fire engine was sent to King Street to ring its siren. People from outlying areas poured into London. A bonfire was lit downtown at the corner of Dundas and Richmond streets, but the fire department extinguished it, fearing that nearby communication and electrical wires might be damaged. Flags and other patriotic items flew off store shelves. During the afternoon, a parade made its way to Victoria Park — it  included bands, wounded veterans, nurses, and a float depicting Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany bowing down to Britannia. At the park, around 20,000 people gathered for a service filled with choir songs and religious speeches. That night, after more celebrations had filled downtown with colourful costumes and every form of noisemaker imaginable, people gathered back at the park to watch a returned soldier burn an effigy of the kaiser.

“Amidst all the joy there was apparent a feeling of deep thankfulness that the awful nightmare was over,” the Free Press reported. “A feeling of reverence and recognition of a higher power than man’s almost akin to awe was frequently apparent in the remarks of men seldom credited with thoughts outside of mundane things of life.”

Festivities continued throughout the rest of the week. Among the highlights was a two-day Victory Jubilee Carnival, which offered prizes for best costumes and the “best representation” of Allied heroes, such as French general Ferdinand Foch and British prime minister David Lloyd George. “There are men who look enough like one of these great men,” an ad declared, “that only a little makeup would be necessary to win the prize.”

Newspaper advertisement.

Down in Paris, people hit the streets around 6 a.m. According to the Brantford Courier, the news reached town at 4 a.m. but was “very wisely withheld for two hours before making it generally known.”

Over the rest of the morning and early afternoon, residents and nearby farmers gathered downtown until several thousand lined the main street. At 3:30 p.m., the mayor and other local dignitaries delivered speeches. After religious leaders led a series of prayers, a parade wandered all over town until 10:30 p.m. Following the burning of a kaiser effigy, community members headed off to a dance.

When the news reached residents of Kitchener at 6 a.m., bells and whistles blew across the city, and within an hour, the streets were jammed. “Men and women who had schooled themselves to a rigorous sobriety during the four years of stress and awful tension,” a Daily Telegraph editorial observed, “threw down the bars of restraint and celebrated with a zest and enthusiasm such they scarce believed their emotions capable of registering.” King Street was filled with children in costumes and makeup, and cars and trucks packed with people smashing gongs; confetti rained down. A parade — with many floats featuring effigies of the kaiser — stretched for more than three kilometres. Dignitaries gave speeches at city hall and Market Square.

Newspaper front page

But there was also obvious tension at play. Some members of the city’s British community were hostile toward those of German heritage, questioning their loyalty to the British Empire. Around 10 a.m., a group of veterans and other citizens took Alderman A.L. Bitzer from his office and forced him and jeweller John Schmidt to kiss the Union Jack on the steps of city hall. The group also searched for two other city councillors of German extraction but failed to locate them. The local press waved off the incident as mere mischief. Bitzer later said that he didn’t object to kissing the flag but that having been made to do so was humiliating. (The incident was echoed more violently a year later when council was petitioned to hold another vote on the city’s name: members of the Great War Veteran’s Association dunked Bitzer in a park pond and beat up local MP W.D. Euler when he refused to submit to the mob’s demand that he kiss the flag.)

It was also reported that an inebriated veteran walked into a Italian-operated fruit store and told the owner that the Italian flag was, as the Daily Telegraph put it, “no good or words to that effect” — even though Italy was an Allied nation. A crowd gathered expecting a fight but dispersed when the situation cooled down. After hearing about other incidents involving “unseemly conduct” that had occurred during the victory celebrations, Mayor David Gross called a city-council meeting for the next day, at which it was decided that a private detective should be hired to find those responsible.

Despite these incidents, the main message for Kitchener residents on November 11 was hope for the future and the importance of working together. “We at home will see where our duty lies,” Euler declared during his speech at Market Square, “and now, whatever our differences may sometimes be, will take part in the upbuilding of this great country in the reconstruction period that will follow.”

Sources: From Wilhelm to Hans by Mario Nathan Coschi (Hamilton: McMaster University, 2018); the November 12, 1918, edition of the Brantford Courier; the November 8, 1918, November 11, 1918, and November 12, 1918, editions of the Kitchener Daily Telegraph; the November 12, 1918, and November 13, 1918, editions of the Kitchener News Record; the November 7, 1918, November 11, 1918, and November 12, 1918, editions of the London Free Press.

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