‘The burning joy of the moment’: Manchester’s reaction to the Armistice

News of the imminent end of the war reached Manchester just after ten on the morning of the 11th of November 1918. With an official announcement expected, there had been an all-night vigil in the newspaper offices. All wires had been cleared in anticipation. And then, at 10.25 a.m. flags were being unfurled at the offices of the Manchester Guardian and the Evening News. With the presses already having been set up and ready to roll, it was only a short matter of time before newspaper carts, also decked in patriotic colours, were carrying the hot-off-the-press headlines all over the city. Suddenly factory sirens were sounding and all across Manchester people were flinging open their windows. ‘It was as though people had heard the news and wanted to breathe it,’ the Manchester Guardian observed. ‘It seemed just what occurs after a long and heavy thunderstorm, when people may be seen opening their windows as though some welcome release had come.’ Soon people were on the streets. At 11 a.m., as the Armistice was being signed, people crowded into Albert Square. There was a momentary stillness as the crowd watched a flag being hoisted over the Town Hall. There seems to have been a feeling of shock, more than joy, in this instant. There was a sense of solemnity. People cried rather than cheered.

Albert Square at noon on the 11th of November 1918. Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918.

Albert Square at noon on the 11th of November 1918. Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918.

The mood shifted over the course of the day, though. Tears turned to joyous laughter and by the afternoon the predominant tone was one of jubilation. The munition works broke out, shops, offices and warehouses closed and a holiday was declared at Manchester Grammar School. By 1 p.m., the streets were packed:

‘Along all the main roads into the city, along Ashton Old Road, along Stockport Road and Hyde Road, work-girls poured in hundreds, gathering as they went flags and the other patriotic symbols which had been so suddenly rushed out of obscurity of the hawker’s warehouse. They clambered on town-going lorries. In Market Street one saw a cart, drawn by the tiniest of donkeys, with seven or eight sturdy girls in overalls, cheering and flag-waving… The girls – for the first crowds were mainly girls – flocked in their workclothes, shawls over heads, or in the light trousered overalls of the munition works. They shouted and cheered, breaking up now and then to do a few steps of a wild fox-trot.’

The bells of the Town Hall clock were ringing and the tugs in Salford Quay were sounding their horns. People were trimming their hats with red, white and blue. The newspaper reports of the day emphasise the sudden loudness and colour of all of this jubilation – a wild breaking out of vitality after the long stifling wait of war. As night fell, the city lit up. After so long an age of stumbling through dimmed streets, suddenly every lamp in the city seemed to be burning brightly. There was a ‘feverish energy’ now, wrote the Guardian:

‘It was given point and direction by bugle bands and drums. In almost every main street at any time during the evening one could see such a band, with its flag-waving leader and its long straggling tail of men and girls linking arms across the street. They marched quickly and unimpeded through the crowded streets, for there were no tramcars to break their ranks. It was, indeed, a wonderful contrast with the days that are just behind us – streets with lights but no traffic, crowds that moved about us as if they had no care and no thought beyond the burning joy of the moment.’

The night’s celebrations were exuberant and spontaneous and raucous – and extended into the early hours of the morning. The Manchester Guardian’s editorial observed: ‘Long pent-up reserves of nervous energy and high spirits took long to work themselves out.’[i]

[i] Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1918; Manchester Evening News 11th and 12th November 1918.

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