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Armistice — how we celebrated the end of World War 1

October 30th, 2020 By Dylan Owen

In 1918 — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — the First World War ended. Read how New Zealanders celebrated and commemorated this historic event. Explore our curated teaching and learning resources about World War 1 (WW1) and the 1918 armistice.

Armistice Day crowd celebrating in Dunedin with Union Jack flag.
Armistice Day celebrations at Municipal Chambers, 1918 Dunedin City Council Archives. Public domain

The end of hostilities

Across Europe, news of the armistice was greeted mostly with exhausted relief by soldiers.

On New Zealand’s home-front, feelings were similar. Every community across both motu had suffered terribly from the deaths of local men fighting overseas.

The loss of New Zealand soldiers in 1918 had continued unabated. In fact, over 5300 New Zealand troops died in 1918 — more than any other year of the First World War including the 1915 Gallipoli campaign.

Soldier laying a wreath on a recently filled grave in a cemetery.
An Auckland officer placing a wreath on the grave of Lieutenant W. P. Richards, near Abeele, France. Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref:1/2-013744-G Copyright unknown.

Joy and celebration

Across New Zealand, news of the armistice was greeted with joy and celebration on 11 and 12 November. Wellington, according to one newspaper, was turned into a city of boundless joy as wide as the world. So much so that ‘desks, benches, and counters were soon deserted.’

And the noise!

There were songs and cheers, miscellaneous pipings and blastings, and footings and rattlings — a roaring chorus of gladsome sounds ... All occupations were the same today; the people had one heart, one mind, one impulse — merrymaking, Other speeches. Manawatu Standard Vol. XLIII, 13 November 1918.

On 12 November, Prime Minister Mr Massey read out the armistice terms. Parliament then adjourned and official and unofficial celebrations were held across the city.

Bombs away

Smaller centres like Naseby and Levin also celebrated the armistice with singing and street processions, including people in fancy dress.

Armistice celebration in Levin with people in fancy dress.
Group including 'John Bull' in fancy dress during the Armistice Day celebrations in Levin. George Leslie Adkin. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/4-023268-G Copyright unknown.

In Naseby, a large bonfire was lit under an effigy of the Kaiser which someone had placed a bomb inside. It eventually exploded, blowing off the Kaiser’s head.

North in Horowhenua, there was similar jubilation — and another bomb. However, this one was German. A mine had washed up on the beach near Otaki and numerous sightseers had arrived to see and also handle it.

It was claimed the German mine resembled the head of the Kaiser.

More worryingly, though, were local newspaper reports of people dying from influenza.


For some communities, celebrating the armistice was complicated by a deadly sting at the war’s end. Returning soldiers carried a deadly strain of influenza that killed over 8,500 New Zealanders.

In Samoa, it was catastrophic. Around 8500 Samoans died — over 20% of the population at the time.

In New Zealand, the ‘scourge’ forced the closure of shops, theatres, public buildings, and halted public functions celebrating the war’s end. In Christchurch, thanksgiving church services were also banned.

Even smaller rural communities, especially Māori, found themselves deeply affected. Queenstown’s Children’s Day celebrations were postponed indefinitely as a result of the influenza epidemic.

On 13 November, Native Land Agent Ben Keys noted in his diary:

News came at 9 o’clock yesterday morning of the capitulation of Germany ... There was considerable rejoicing all the morning but the town (Rotorua) rapidly quietened down towards midday. People are afraid of the influenza scourge, and do not like to congregate ... About 2 o’clock yesterday the soldiers besieged the Grand Hotel, and threatened to break in, so the management had to roll out a big cask of beer for them, to avert a riot ... Rejoicing for Peace, and fear of the epidemic, are blending in a curious and pathetic manner. In Auckland, it seems, all public functions have been postponed, and probably the main celebrations here will be allowed to stand over for a time, Diary entry by Ben Keys, November 13, 1918, Alexander Turnbull Library MS-Papers-0407-31_080.

2 people standing outside influenza medicine depot. Signs on roof read 'Public Health Department Treatment of Influenza' and 'Govt Standard Influenza Medicine Depot'.
Influenza depot. Photographer unknown. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref: 1/1-008542-G. Copyright unknown.

1919 official peace celebrations

For most New Zealand communities, official peace celebrations took place in the winter of 1919 over a 3–4 day period (18–21 July). There were many variations, but the main components typically comprised:

  • Soldiers’ Day — included troop processions, speeches often followed by a participatory sports gathering
  • Day of Thanksgiving — usually the Sunday as it included morning and evening church services
  • Children's Day — covered a variety of child-focused entertainments, processions, trips, speeches, games, and refreshments.
A packed crowd of soldiers and civilians celebrating armistice in Auckland.
Peace celebrations. A.N. Breckon. New Zealand Herald Glass Plate Collection, Auckland Libraries. Ref:1370-U079-10 Copyright unknown.

'Making the city gay’

In Auckland, instructions were issued on how to 'make the city gay.' For business premises, decorations and electric illumination were the two options. For main streets decorations, using bunting and banners was suggested. 

On the latter, it was recommended that ‘the names of battles and great events in which the New Zealand Expeditionary Force participated’ could be recorded (Peace celebrations. New Zealand Herald Volume LV, 13 December 1918).

The Auckland city peace celebrations of 19 July saw immense crowds turn out to enthusiastically support the formal procession and an afternoon of athletic sports in the Domain. In the evening, people flocked to view the striking illuminations of the Town Hall and Ferry Buildings.

Then at 7 pm, a 100-foot peace bonfire constructed on the Mt Eden summit was lit.

Night in Queen St, Auckland, showing the lights celebrating the Armistice.
Night in Queen St, Auckland, showing the lights celebrating the armistice Ref:1/2-000214-G Copyright unknown.

In Wellington, it was no less picturesque, one reporter lyrically describing a tramcar illuminated with coloured electric lights, packed with women and children, with the Tramways Band playing on its roof!

Wellington crowds were similarly colourful and included:

... a band of irresponsible juveniles, male and female, who, gaily bedecked with flags and flowers, sang and joked with almost Continental abandon, Pyrotechnic display. New Zealand Times, Volume XLIV. 21 July 1919.

Smaller towns across New Zealand also threw themselves into celebratory and commemorative activities. These ranged from planting ‘peace trees’, parades (including mock tanks), and concerts, to fireworks displays and the ever-popular peace bonfires.

In Pio Pio, there was:

'... an awe-inspiring war dance by the Maoris, who had loyally assisted to make the celebrations a success.',Peace celebrations. King Country Chronicle, Volume XII, 26 July 1919.

Men standing under a large arch across Jackson Street, Petone, displaying the word 'Peace'.
Arch celebrating peace, Jackson Street, Petone. Photographer unknown. July 1919. Alexander Turnbull Library. Ref:PAColl-9308-08 Copyright unknown.

Provincial peace

From the largest cities to the smallest communities, official celebrations were commented on enthusiastically by the press and held under (largely) clear skies. Attendance, like patriotism, was seemingly compulsory. In the King Country's tiny Waitanguru settlement, a King Country Chronicle reporter noted:

Despite the threatening skies, not a settler in the district was absent from the ceremony, Peace celebrations. King Country Chronicle, Volume XII, 26 July 1919.

Inside the Waitanguru hall (suitably decorated with bunting and fern fronds), slices of a huge iced 'Peace' cake were served up to seated children. Later that evening, prizes were awarded to those with the best fancy dress costumes.

Connie Thoms, (aged 5), received the first prize as a Moonbeam Fairy, while second prize went to Jessie Richardson (aged 3) who appropriately represented Peace.

Then at 8.30, the adults took over hall till the early hours of the dawn. It was then they all joined hands and sung 'Auld Lang Syne'.

Peace at last.

Explore these WW1 and armistice resources with your students

Topic Explorer

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World War 1 (WW1) resources

Our First World War resource guide for schools is an extensive collection of online World War 1 and WW100 commemoration resources.

Ministry of Education’s inquiry guides and resources

Explore these extensive, inquiry–focused guides and resource packs with your students. Each resource considers the relevance of the First World War today for students (years 1–13) within their own lives and communities. There's also a te reo Māori medium section.

This blog post

This post was originally published in 2018. We've updated and republished it with some wording changes and added Many Answers entries.

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