News of the end of the War to End All Wars spread like wildfire 100 years ago, on Nov. 7, 1918. Reports that the armistice had been signed sent millions of Americans into the streets to celebrate. Twenty-four hours later, the news proved false.
“Each hour brings added official evidence that the reports were false and that the American people were fooled,” a report in The Gazette stated. “Not only have official communications from France to the state department in Washington announced the reports as untrue, but the official statements of the French and British war offices show the fighting still going on.”
In fact, fighting was still going on as the German delegates arrived in France.
“The only point in the whole battle line where the firing seems to have stopped at all was at a point where it was necessary to let the German commissioners pass though,” the report went on.
THE END OF WAR
Official word of the armistice finally came in France on Nov. 11, 1918, at the eleventh hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
Sunrise in Cedar Rapids was greeted with the tolling of church bells. At 2:15 that morning, news arrived at The Evening Gazette, where editors immediately relayed the information to the Chamber of Commerce. The chamber sent word to the city’s factories, and factory whistles joined the bells, waking citizens to the long-awaited news.
A spontaneous parade began that grew progressively throughout the morning, adding car horns and band instruments to the shouts of joy all over the city.
At a few minutes after 4 a.m., The Gazette had an extra on the street announcing the armistice and that fighting would cease at 5 a.m. Iowa time. On its front page was this proclamation from Cedar Rapids Mayor J.F. Rall:
The Armistice has been signed.
Hostilities cease at this minute and Peace is in sight.
In order that Cedar Rapids may give expression of its great loyalty and Patriotism, let all our people join in the jubilation and business be suspended until 12 o’clock noon of this day.
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Then let us remember our BOYS at home and abroad and prove our loyalty by raising our full quota for the United War Work before 6 o’clock tomorrow evening.
President Woodrow Wilson issued this formal proclamation at 10 a.m.: “My fellow countrymen: The armistice was signed this morning. Everything for which America fought has been accomplished. It will now be our fortunate duty to assist by example, by sober, friendly counsel and by material aid in the establishment of just democracy throughout the world.”
A year later, Armistice Day was officially observed on Nov. 11, 1919, by proclamation of President Wilson. It was observed not only in Cedar Rapids, but also in Manchester, Mount Vernon, Anamosa, Ames and Iowa City, among other Iowa cities.
While the common practice that year was to dismiss students from classes, the president and deans at Iowa State College in Ames did not agree. Classes went on as usual.
Among those who protested at ISU were former servicemen, one of whom had lost a leg during the war. When he went to the dean’s office to protest, he was told, “Hurry up — we haven’t much time.”
Faced with a threatened strike, the dean finally agreed to a half day off. The former soldiers decided to take the whole day, and they were suspended.
Although generally recognized as a significant day, Armistice Day was not observed as a federal holiday until 1938. That didn’t stop veterans’ organizations from promoting the day with dances like the one held at the City Auditorium in 1919 or the promotion of a national “Peace Day” by a national organization of jewelers.
In 1920, the American Legion and its affiliated Rainbow Society — victory medals with rainbow ribbons were awarded to any soldier who had served — pressured Washington to proclaim the day a national holiday.
That same year, a local celebration featured a parade led by the Legion’s Hanford Post, followed by veterans of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, Company K of the Iowa National Guard and ROTC cadets. The parade started in front of the City Auditorium and wound through downtown Cedar Rapids, crossing the river twice and ending at Greene Square.
In 1921, Mayor Rall issued a proclamation asking businesses to close for at least half of the day, saying, “Armistice Day is everybody’s day.”
Twenty years after Armistice Day and the end of the Great War, it was proclaimed a federal holiday in 1938.
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In 1939, a crowd gathered on the plaza on May’s Island for a moment of silence at 11 a.m., the same hour the guns ceased firing on the Western front.
“The colors of the American Legion, Spanish War Veterans and Coe College ROTC unit were advanced, the Legion firing squad cracked out three volleys, a bugler sounded taps,” The Gazette reported. “While taps were being sounded, a flock of white pigeons circled around the plaza in the morning sunlight.”
The gathering, the paper reported, was “as much a prayer for peace as a tribute to the fallen” because war was again resuming in Europe.
President Roosevelt continued the custom of laying a wreath at the grave of the soldier “known but to God.” The United States was at peace, but Germany and the Allies were again at war.
The United States joined the second world war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Legislation passed in the 83rd U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on June 1, 1954, changed the word Armistice to Veterans in order to honor American veterans of all wars.
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