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Remembering Nov. 11, 1918: ‘A big siren tore the midnight silence’

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Armistice Day in Minneapolis.

It was just before 2 a.m. when word reached Minneapolis that the armistice had been signed. After four bloody years, the Great War, as it was known then, was finally over.

“A big siren tore the midnight silence, with a roar and a series of crescendo shrieks echoing from the hills of Columbia Heights to the lowlands of the Minnesota Valley,” the Minneapolis Journal told its readers on Nov. 11, 1918. “Victory had been achieved and the boys were coming back from over there.”

Soon Minneapolis sprang to life as lights flashed on all over town. Within minutes, people came pouring out of their homes and jumping onto the nearby trolley cars making their early morning runs. “Milk trucks and milk wagons were pressed into service,” the Journal reported. “Automobiles came out of their garages and every driver felt it his duty to come downtown, carrying as many wayfarers he could find to pick up.”

Drums, rattles and guns

“The constantly growing crowds outrivaled in noise making any other celebration in the history of the northwest … horns, bells, loads of tinware dragged over the pavement at the tails of automobiles and trucks. Drums, rattles, guns — everything blended into a mighty symphony,” the paper observed approvingly.

By 4 a.m., the downtown streets were clogged with merrymakers.

“Everyone was brimming over with good humor and a feeling of fellowship for every other man, be he the struggling newsboy working his way through the crowd or the sedate banker off the hill blowing his horn  till the veins on his neck were wreathed in purple expansion,” the Journal observed.

‘Old soldiers’ join the parade

At the Leamington Hotel, two permanent residents, former Minnesota Gov. Samuel Van Sant and Judge Eli Torrance, woke up at 2 a.m. and joined the revelers. Both were Civil War veterans and past commanders of that war’s veterans group, the Grand Army of the Republic. By 4 in the morning, dressed in their GAR uniforms, the two men were marching around the block in a parade led by an Elks band.

“We kept going until day light,” Torrance later noted. “Pretty good for two old soldiers.”

Later in the day, Minneapolis Mayor Thomas Van Lear issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 11 a holiday and requesting that all stores and businesses close at 2 p.m. in observance of the armistice.

“Our gallant boys in Europe have brought peace to a war torn world,” Van Lear declared. “From the hearts of the mothers of this country, a load of anguish and anxiety has been lifted. Today, in spirt she stands with her boy on the battlefield and thanks the Creator for the blessing of peace.”

The front page of the Nov. 11, 1918, issue of the Minneapolis  Journal.
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Public Library
The front page of the Nov. 11, 1918, issue of the Minneapolis Journal.

Mayor had just lost re-election fight

For the mayor, the armistice must have been a bittersweet event. Only a week earlier, he had been defeated for re-election in a close-fought battle with his Republican-backed opponent, J.E. Meyers. As an avowed Socialist, Van Lear had backed the war effort with reservations even while criticizing those who fought to profit by it. Meyers had sharply attacked the incumbent mayor, charging that Van Lear’s ties to the anti-war Socialists were unpatriotic and a sign of disloyalty.

In its Nov. 11 editorial, the Journal added its own somber comments on the armistice. ‘The day of peace is dawning. The world’s night of agony is almost over — almost but not quite.”  The paper’s editorial writer would have no way of knowing it at the time, but another “night of agony” lasting more than four years, would occur two decades later.

During his two terms in office, President Woodrow Wilson had hoped that World War I, which occurred on his watch, would be the “war to end all wars,” but his dream was never realized. Today, Nov. 11 is known as Veterans Day. It honors all the men and women who have fought in nearly a century of wars that have occurred since the armistice of 1918.

Iric Nathanson is writing a book about the impact of World War I on Minnesota.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 11/11/2014 - 01:04 pm.

    Armistice Day

    This morning my wife and I went up to Victory Memorial Drive to pay our respects at the memorial there. They have a monument to the 568 men from Hennepin County who gave their all in the Great War. If the sun is shining the flag pole will cast a shadow along a lane at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

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