The arrival of 2014 brings with it one of history’s most significant dates: the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.
If ever there was an historical event that “changed everything,” it was that war. At the end of four years of fighting, four great empires- the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Ottoman- were gone.
Millions of their own people would die at the hands of the Nazi and Communist regimes that followed the war. And another war would be fought in Europe 20 years later. Some historians trace the current chaos in the Middle East in part to the rivalries that followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Although victors, the British and the French lost millions in men and treasure. Only the United States, which did not join the fight until 1917, emerged unscathed and a world power.
But World War I did not end gracefully, even in America. And many of those who lived through it long remembered the famous premature armistice of November 7, 1918 that sparked a frenzy of misplaced euphoria sweeping the world and the Lehigh Valley along with it. There was so much confusion that even today no one is quite sure what was behind it.
A possible end of World War I was not the only important thing on the Lehigh Valley’s mind in the first week of November 1918.
The region was just beginning to emerge from the worldwide influenza pandemic that had killed millions. Although the body count locally was not like Philadelphia and other large cities, where thousands of children either died or become orphans, it was bad enough with close to 500 recorded deaths in Allentown alone.
Almost all public meetings were banned and bars and theaters were closed. It was a grim time when people spent their day either in the factory turning out munitions, worrying about their loved ones on the battlefront, or living in fear of a plague whose primary victims were young men and women in their 20s and 30s.
Then, suddenly the headlines were promising victory. Germany had collapsed, its ruler, Kaiser Wilhelm II, had fled, and revolution was sweeping his former empire. In the words of Roy W. Howard, war reporter for the United Press (later UPI), “la guerre was, for all practical purposes, very definitely fini.”
Howard’s name was not unknown to readers of Allentown’s Chronicle and News, who subscribed to the UP’s wire service for war news. In fact it was a dispatch from Howard that was to start the whole thing.
As Howard recalled it, he was in Brest, France on November 6, 1918, when he was informed by mid-level U.S. authorities that an armistice with Germany had been signed. Wanting to beat his great rivals at the Associated Press with this definite “scoop,” Howard went to Admiral Henry B. Wilson, head of U.S. Naval Forces in France, for permission.
Wilson, a native of Camden, New Jersey (for whom the city re-named a now frequently flooded section of U.S. Route 30 the “Admiral Wilson Boulevard”), assured Howard it was official. After making a few more checks the reporter sent the following cable to New York:
URGENT ARMISTICE ALLIES GERMANY SIGNED ELEVEN SMORNING (this morning) HOSTILITIES CEASED TWO SAFTERNOON (this afternoon) SEDAN TAKEN SMORNING BY AMERICAN TROOPS.
Howard later claimed that he sent this on the admiral’s say, without clearing it by a French or any other censor. He claimed they were too busy dancing in the streets, hailing the war’s end, to bother with it.
It was 11:20 am November 7th when Howard’s dispatch arrived in New York. The city exploded. “Telegraph offices were swamped, offices and businesses were deserted, New York’s luncheon crowd never went back to work…Lower Broadway in New York invented its first ticker tape parade,” Howard wrote.
The news was quickly sent out over the telegraph, arriving at the Allentown Chronicle and News shortly before noon. News boys shouting, “extra, extra!” were soon in the streets with accounts of the “armistice.” This sent people spilling out of homes and offices to grab a paper.
All the pent-up emotion from the war and the pandemic burst out. One witness, who was about 15 years old at the time and had lost his father to the flu a month or so before, recalled Allentown as in an absolute panic of joy.
Factory whistles screeched from the war industries across the region, Bethlehem Steel among them. Band music, mostly Sousa marches, blared all over Allentown. There only musical rival was the old but still popular favorite, “They’ll Be A Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight.”
Apparently someone, no one knows exactly who, decided that it was futile to keep the bars and saloons closed. Before long, in spite of the flu restrictions, they were open and the crowds-mostly male-flooded in. “People were getting drunk and driving like crazy in the street,” recalled the witness, “I had never seen anything like it.”
But the next morning, as people nursed their hangovers, the Lehigh Valley woke to the news that it was all for naught. From the White House, President Woodrow Wilson announced a correction: somehow the war was not really over. There had been some misunderstanding.
This news was met with disbelief by many. But gradually it sunk in. There was terrific finger pointing, mostly at the UP. The local example came from the Morning Call, who subscribed to the Associated Press. They reminded their readers that if they wanted accurate news they should look to the Call first.
Howard believed that war-weary Germans were the ones who floated the rumor, hoping to end the war quickly before the Allies could impose harsher surrender terms. But to this day no one really knows.
When the armistice was finally signed on November 11, 1918, celebrations were once more held across America. But there must have been some who agreed with the Allentown witness who, looking back many years later felt, “they were just not the same.”