How Montreal celebrated the end of WW I, a century ago

There was jubilation and sadness on Montreal’s streets as the First World War ended.

On Nov. 11, 1918, Montrealers were woken at 6 a.m. by bells and whistles marking the Armistice

Montreal's Ste-Catherine Street on Nov. 11, 1918, as the city learned the Great War had come to an end. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

The Montreal sky was illuminated that Sunday night by northern lights — a harbinger, the newspapers would later say, of the good news to come.

In the morning, around 6 a.m., every bell, whistle and siren in the city began to sound.

The word on the street was the war was over, something Montrealers were hesitant to believe at first.

A similar rumour had circulated a few days earlier. It turned out to be wrong.

But by 8 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, newspapers were rushing out special editions that confirmed, after four years and some 20 million dead, the Great War had indeed come to an end.

"Workers … arrived at their factories with their hearts light, liberated from a great burden," Le Devoir reported that day.

"In the animated streets, pedestrians were brandishing newspapers with large smiles, their eyes brimming with fire."

Carnage abroad, strife at home

The last year of the war had been especially tumultuous in Quebec.

The province's francophones took a disinterested view of the conflict after its outset, seeing it as a largely British, imperial affair.

But when the Canadian government, faced with a shortage of troops, imposed conscription in 1917, opposition in Quebec turned violent.

Protests erupted across the province. The Montreal home of Lord Atholstan, owner of the pro-conscription Montreal Star newspaper, was bombed. A riot in the city that August left one person dead.

This photograph of an anti-conscription parade at Victoria Square was likely taken May 24, 1917, according to the McCord Museum. (National Archives of Canada)

Tensions worsened a few months later as federal authorities began tracking down draft dodgers.

When the Dominion Police arrested a Quebec City man at a bowling alley in March, 1918, crowds several thousand strong spent days attacking government buildings.

At least four people were killed and more than 100 were injured as soldiers and demonstrators exchanged gunfire.

For the rest of the war, Ottawa kept a large detachment of English-speaking troops in Quebec City, ready to suppress any further signs of insurrection.

'Impossible to describe the joy'

The social unrest at home came as the fighting in Europe appeared to be getting worse.

In the final offensive push of the war alone — the so-called One Hundred Days campaign — the Canadian Corps suffered 45,000 casualties.

So the relief was palpable in Montreal on that November morning in 1918.

"It would be impossible to describe the joy that came over everyone's bodies when the news became known," La Presse reported. "There was universal rejoicing."

As it happened, there was already a large military parade planned that day in Montreal to promote the sale of Victory Bonds.

Many public buildings were closed for the parade. Balconies along the route had been draped in anticipation with bunting and the flags of the Allied nations.

A 1919 parade on St-Hubert Street marking the return of Quebec's Royal 22nd Regiment from Europe. (Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)

Victory Bond parade turns triumphant

By the time the parade left Atwater at 10 a.m., Sherbrooke Street was thronged with a crowd four or five people deep.

Police on horseback had to clear the way for the procession. Boys clambered up telegraph poles and into trees to get a better view.

There was a tank, a locomotive, dozens of floats sponsored by Montreal's leading businesses, and unflattering effigies of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor.

There were representatives from across the world, including contingents from China, Syria and Poland.

The front page of Montreal's La Presse on Nov. 11, 1918.

Forty bakers dressed in white took part, as did a Westmount jazz band and mayors from around the Montreal area.

In the air above, a 20-year-old flying ace named McCullough — a "man-bird," Le Devoir called him — performed tricks for the crowd below.

But the loudest cheers, according to newspaper accounts of the day, were reserved for veterans of the war.

"They were cheered with long applause and shouting," La Presse said. "They were celebrated as if each spectator saw in them a son, a father, a brother, a friend, a parent."

'Poor boys'

Amid the jubilation, however, there were poignant reminders that four years of fighting can take its toll.

Many broke into tears, La Presse reported, at the sight of wounded soldiers.

As the parade passed McGill University, a woman wearing a white mourning armband was spotted on her tiptoes, waving a flag rapturously at the sight of Canadian soldiers.

She quickly broke down, though. "Poor boys," she repeated again and again. "Oh cruel agony," La Presse remarked.

Near the corner of Cherrier and St-Denis, where the parade turned toward La Fontaine Park, a mother told the newspaper: "We finally have peace. I had a son who was killed over there, but at least others will come back. They didn't fight in vain."

It wasn't until past 1 p.m. that the tail end of the procession arrived at La Fontaine Park.

Le Canada, a Montreal newspaper that closed in the 1950s, called it "the best parade that has ever graced the streets of the Canadian metropolis."