When the ‘war to end wars’ finally ended

By Philip Newman

The tumult began at 6 a.m., with blasts from factory whistles and the pealing of church bells that stirred thousands of Queens citizens from their beds and marked the end of what President Woodrow Wilson called “the war to end all wars.”

Officials said a premature outbreak of celebrating four days prior to the official announcement of the end of what was long known as the World War had no noticeable effect on the merriment on the “11th Month, 11th Day and 11th Hour of 1918” when the guns fell silent, ending four years of fighting in Europe.

Throughout Queens, the noise of celebration could be heard from automobile horns, whistles, fire engine sirens, church bells and even pans and skillets from countless kitchens, acknowledging the signing of the armistice in a railroad car in Compiegne, France.

Under the terms of the armistice, Germany surrendered to the Allies—which comprised Great Britain, France, the United States, Russia and Italy. The members of what were known as the Central Powers—which included Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria—had, with the exception of Germany, already capitulated.

The kaiser (emperor) of Germany, Wilhelm Hohenzollern, fled to Holland where he was interned. He died there in 1941.

An issue in much of the United States was the low regard of anything German by much of the public to the extent that some went to court—several dozen in Queens in mid-summer 1918—to change their Teutonic names. Organizations and some German Lutheran congregations removed the word German from their names.

In any case, it was a day of rejoicing in nearly all neighborhoods of Queens

“All over Queens, it was joy unrestrained,” proclaimed the Daily Star Newspaper, which had offices in Long Island City.

“At the Steinway Theater cheering broke out every time Old Glory or pictures of the nation’s leaders flashed onto the screen,” the Star reported. “A likeness of the kaiser brought howls of derision.”

Schools and most public offices closed at the news, although Justice Callaghan and District Attorney O’Leary held court as usual, taking time out to read the announcement of the armistice.

After the news of victory, Draft Board No.171 finished processing its final draftees, shut up shop and put a sign on the door that read: “We have gone to the kaiser’s funeral.”

Many neighborhoods held their own parades.

One of the biggest parades was in Ridgewood, where at least 10,000 citizens marched, and included a hearse driven by Peter Geis, an undertaker at Myrtle Avenue and Weirfield Street. He carried a coffin with a scornful message about the Kaiser.

Bands played at numerous locations as well as soloists on cornets and other instruments, including “an Italian playing the accordian,” news reports said.

In Whitestone, the Odd Fellows club hung out a huge banner praising U.S. troops. In College Point, Kleinert Rubber Co. shut down and there followed parades of police reserves, Girl Pioneers and Young Men’s Catholic Laymen.

In Long Island City, the Wright Martin Aircraft plant suspended production and employees organized a parade.

While Queens rejoiced that the war had ended, there remained a plague that raged across the borough, most of America and much of the world hard—Spanish influenza.

“Fifteen hundred bodies are being held at Calvary cemetery to await burial. Gravediggers are getting $10 a day but cannot keep up,” The Star reported. They also reported a shortage of coffins. Throughout the United States the pandemic took 675,000 lives in 1918 and 1919. Thousands donned masks covering their noses and mouths to lessen their chances of contracting the disease.

American Telephone & Telegraph took out newspaper ads pleading with the public to make only the most urgent calls because the flu pandemic had nearly depleted their staff of operators.

President Wilson’s use of the “war to end wars” phrase was not totally original as the English author H.G Wells had previously used a variation of it before Wilson adopted it when he asked Congress to approve a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

President Wilson had strived to keep his country out of the war, but joined the struggle after German submarines went all out in sinking U.S. ships, some just off the East Coast.

It had cost the United States just over 53,000 lives on the battlefield

Congress passed legislation in 1938 making Nov. 11 a legal federal holiday, Armistice Day. In 1954 President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.