'The greatest day the world has known'

Albert J. Silverman

November 11, 1993|By Albert J. Silverman

SEVENTY-FIVE years ago today, at 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the guns ceased their thunder, the earth stopped shuddering and an eerie silence descended on the Western Front. The world war (not yet known as World War I, of course) was over.

The Baltimore Sun compared it to the seventh day when the Prophet Joshua marched seven times around the walls of Jericho until the walls came tumbling down:

"It was a victory of the spirit that would never admit that might makes right or that brutality and savagery could triumph over humanity . . ."

The announcement of the armistice sent the entire war-weary world into delirium. The jubilation actually had begun four days earlier, when a premature and unconfirmed report of peace was widely circulated. This came to be known as the "false armistice." Two days later, on Nov. 9, the infamous Kaiser, whose malevolent visage had glared at the American public from a million "Wanted" war posters, abdicated and fled ignominiously to Holland, where he lived another 23 years, "unwept, unhonored and unhung."

In Baltimore, the people went mad with joy. The false armistice had merely whetted their appetites. Even before first light, newsboys were scurrying all over the city with "Extra" editions of the newspapers.

By dawn, the entire city was aroused and bursting with sound -- factory and ship whistles, the pealing of church bells, the shriek of fire sirens and the honking of auto horns. Breakfast that morning was a memorable one in Baltimore households.

As soon as the official word was out, J. Barry Mahool, the acting mayor whose son would never return from France, declared the day a municipal holiday. The school board ordered the schools closed. Plants and factories were shut and business in the city was suspended. Stores, saloons and eateries were closed, as were the courts and government offices. By common consent, it was viewed as a sacrilege to labor on this great day.

Then, as if drawn by a magnet, hordes of jubilant Baltimoreans gathered downtown. By noon, it seemed as if the entire population of Baltimore had gathered within a half-mile of Baltimore and Charles streets. Impromptu parades of cheering and singing people surged through the streets. Traffic came to a stop.

Every band in Baltimore, and bands were numerous in those days, joined in the celebration. They played the patriotic songs of the day: "When Johnny Comes Marching Home," "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "America the Beautiful," "Maryland, My Maryland," "Rally Round the Flag" and "Over There."

Early in the day, the well-known Farson's Band took up a position in Sun Square and remained all day, playing popular and patriotic airs, and the crowd sang. Everyone sang! When the band broke into "Dixie," The Sun reported, it was with a fervor "no battlefield in Virginia ever heard."

Flags, including those of our allies, waved everywhere. Many carried home-made placards and posters.

As nightfall approached, the crowds got bigger. Strangers embraced each other. Food and drink were not available, but nobody seemed to mind. The din was deafening. Every noise-making device was in evidence, including cowbells, tin whistles, kazoos and washboards. At the Academy, the Ziegfeld Follies played to an almost empty house. And at the Lyric, the Philadelphia Orchestra, that bastion of classical music, included patriotic airs in its program. The revelry continued late into the evening.

In this manner did staid old Baltimore celebrate what The Sun called "the greatest day the world has ever known."

Albert J. Silverman is a historian living in Baltimore.

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