One hundred years ago today, the armistice ending World War I took effect at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. The end of The Great War was noisily celebrated in Billings and other Montana communities as soon as a “flash” from the Associated Press brought the news on Nov. 10, 1918.
“Billings went mad last night. In a giant, spontaneous, reckless eruption of enthusiasm, it shrieked its joy until the rimrocks resounded the echo,” The Billings Gazette reported on the morning of Nov. 11. “Automobiles, mufflers open, horns blaring, pressed through the dense throngs. Giant firecrackers exploded beneath the feet of pedestrians. Torpedoes cracked against the sides of buildings, showering the crowd with gravel. Red fire was flung around with prodigal disregard. Torches, casting brilliant light for yards, flared and whirled and juggled about above the heads of the celebrants.”
In Miles City, the armistice celebration reportedly lasted all night with “saloons tacitly permitted to remain open all hours.” No arrests were reported.
At a peace celebration in Townsend, a “can of powder” exploded, seriously burning four small boys and a man. In Livingston, “every whistle screeched the tidings.” A Helena parade ended with a speech from Gov. Sam Stewart.
In Red Lodge, the big coal mine whistles blew for two hours and every business closed from 2-6 p.m. Bells were rung and a fire engine clanged up and down the street.
Along with celebration reports, The Gazette printed the daily America’s Honor Roll, listing American soldiers killed or wounded. The Nov. 11 edition reported Montana casualties included three men killed in action, one who died of disease and one missing in action.
Although the armistice had been expected, the fighting continued till the last day. In the week before, another 26 Montanans were called up for the draft and ordered to report on Nov. 11 to a camp in Washington state. However, the draft notice in The Gazette said those with influenza symptoms would be deferred.
The Nov. 11 Gazette carried a report headlined: “INFLUENZA SITUATION FAST IMPROVING IN THIS COUNTY.” The Spanish flu pandemic had sickened thousands in Yellowstone County, and millions across the nation. On that Armistice Day, 92 of the “worst cases” were being cared for at the Billings high school, which had been turned into a Red Cross hospital. St. Vincent Hospital was full and schools were closed throughout the city. Dr. L.W. Allard, of the city and county health boards reported that 94 people had died of the flu here.
Life on the home front was difficult in other ways. Paranoia about Germans gripped the nation, and Montana lawmakers responded by passing a strict, unconstitutional, anti-sedition law. Dozens of Montana men and a few women were convicted of voicing criticism of the U.S. government. Most of those allegedly seditious remarks were made in bars after the speaker had been drinking. But that mattered not in the frenzy to stamp out dissent.
Everyone, even school children, was expected to contribute money to support the war effort. Those who failed to meet their quota were publicly chastised.
Montanans were divided about the war in 1917-18. It was a state of immigrants, including thousands of German and Austrian immigrants. As Martha Kohl of the Montana Historical Society staff wrote in a 2017 article for “Montana The Magazine of Western History,” some industrial labor unions in Montana opposed participating in what they saw as a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”
Other Montanans agreed with President Woodrow Wilson that the United States had to enter the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” According to Kohl, 12,500 Montanans enlisted in the U.S. military and 23,000 more were drafted.
On Nov. 12, 1918, The Gazette opined on “Peace on Earth,” with the editor predicting: “It is probable that the world will never again witness such a carnival of destruction as that just brought to a close.”
“Too close watch will be kept on the activities of any and all nations to permit even the semblance of such an organization as was perfected by the kaiser and his military clique. Once discovered, such a movement will be smashed in its incipiency.”
How wrong that naïve 1918 editorial was.
The history of America in World War I is instructive for Montanans today. The nation is divided. Racism and fear of immigrants is on the rise. We just ended an election season marred by invective and awash in millions of dollars in spending focused more on tearing down the opposition than on promoting preferred candidates. The middle class is struggling and most of us worry about being able to afford health care when we need it. Our public lands and natural resources are caught in a tug of war with too many extremists and not enough leaders who can find common ground.
Regardless of whether our candidates and issues triumphed or lost in last Tuesday’s election, we must move on. We Montanans must remember our past – good and bad. Today we should honor the men and women who have answered our nation’s call to defend America in times of war and peace. Americans, including Montanans, are deployed now in Afghanistan and other combat zones. Our nation has been continuously at war since Sept. 12, 2001.
If we remember the heroic sacrifices of U.S. soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen, we should be humbled and grateful.
That attitude of humility and gratitude could go a long way to helping Americans sort out our shared values – liberty and justice, for starters. That could be the beginning of reaching the common ground we so desperately need to heal our nation 100 years after the War to End All Wars.