“It’s over!” Armistice Day in Cathedral Square

Cathedral Square hosted one of New Zealand’s most significant historic events after the armistice was signed by the Western Allies and the Central Powers on 11th November 1918 in Paris, France.  The government made the 12th November a public holiday, so the war-weary country could celebrate the great victory after four tough years of death and loss. Close to 18,500 of the country’s finest young men were dead while tens of thousands were left maimed from injuries. Many more were yet to die from the after effects of injuries such as mustard gas poisoning.

An enormous crowd of Cantabrians, estimated to be in the region of 181,856, were drawn to the centre of Christchurch to congregate and watch the grand procession of returned soldiers, Red Cross workers and volunteers from patriotic organisations as they walked through the streets to Cathedral Square, where an open air religious service was celebrated.

The photograph below, taken at 11.23 am,  shows a crowd mainly made up of women, older men and children. Soldiers and naval personnel were still yet to make the long voyage back from their outposts in Europe and the Middle East.

Armistice Day Christchurch
Crowd in Cathedral Square, Christchurch on Armistice Day, 12th November 1918. [1]
The crowd lines the route, craning forward to look towards Colombo Street, flags held in their hands ready to wave. Union Jacks, the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, along with a smattering of other Allied flags are on display. Posters advertising ‘The Star, Official News, Armistice Signed” are plastered on the back of parade vehicles which are packed with passengers, hanging out windows, standing on running boards and perched on the back of cars.

Influenza Depot
The medicine depot in Cathedral Square where the Government standard influenza medicine was supplied, 1918. [2]
One Family’s Celebration

Even without wireless and with very few phones, the news of the peace had spread rapidly. Children were released from school and sent home to celebrate with their families. Seven year old Jean Clark and her mother Ellen, along with younger children and push chair, left their home in Kingsley Street, Sydenham, and climbed over the railway bridge near the railway station to seek out their father, Duncan, a tram driver. Despite the crowd they managed to find his tram and the family climbed aboard, Jean ‘taking charge’ of the tram bell. However the large crowd had a mind of its own, and the tram could not progress to the city and instead retreated to the safety of the tram sheds. The family parted company from their father, and celebrated with fish and chips in the street before making a joyful return home.

It must have felt a very long wait for families and loved ones who had not seen each other for up to four years. However, no one could take away the joy that was shared that day.  Amongst the thronging crowd in the picture above, a small boy, perhaps about six years old, balances on the handle bars of his father’s bicycle. His slightly perplexed expression illustrates a child’s limited understanding of the ramifications of this day. No doubt, he has never been amongst such a huge crowd and most likely, he has mixed feelings of excitement as well as overwhelm. His working class parents; Mother pushing a pram flanked by his older brother, and Father holding firmly to the bike, have their attention firmly focussed on the scene that is playing out in front of them.

Christchurch Boy Scouts to the rescue. John Westgarth, William Sweeney and fellow scout distribute food and medicine to patients at their houses during the influenza epidemic in 1918. Source: The weekly press, 4 Dec. 1918, p. 23. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0048
Christchurch Boy Scouts to the rescue. L to R: John Westgarth, William Sweeney and fellow scout distribute food and medicine to patients at their houses during the influenza epidemic in 1918. [3]
In the background stands the United Services Hotel. Guests have come out to stand on the terraces to enjoy the scene. Others have thrown up the sash windows to have a better view and hear the joyous sounds of the celebration below. A tram pulls up, full of revellers ready to disembark, beside a banner which reads “For Our Naval Heros. Appeal Ends 30 November”.

Celebrations help to spread the Spanish Flu

Huge crowds had gathered in Auckland’s city centre on November 8th after false rumours that the armistice had already been signed. After witnessing the vast crowds who had gathered, the District Health Officer, Doctor Frenley cancelled any gatherings to prevent a dangerous flu called the Spanish Influenza being spread after its arrival in the country a month earlier. Christchurch authorities ignored warnings, allowing the celebration to take precedence. Christchurch was then hit hard with a huge outbreak.  It did not help that Canterbury’s Show Week and the races of Carnival Week were allowed to continue that week, enabling the flu to spread further. Between October and December, another 8,600 New Zealanders were killed, this time during peace time. [4]


  1. Black and white original negative, Samuel Heath Head Collection, Photographic Archive, Alexander Turnbull Library Head 1 Black & White original negative, ref: 1/1-007108-G.
  2. The Weekly Press, 4 Dec. 1918, p. 26. Image: Christchurch City Libraries File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0050.
  3. The weekly press, 4 Dec. 1918, p. 23. Image: Christchurch City Libraries, File Reference CCL PhotoCD 2, IMG0048.
  4. The Epidemic. The Report of Royal Commission. Findings and Recommendations. Press, Volume LV, Issue 16553, 19 June 1919, Page 7.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Wendy Riley-Biddle says:

    My Grandfather, a private in the F Company, 43rd Infantry Reinforcements NZEF, was in London on Armistice Day and stood under the Marble Arch during the victory march. Lucky for him, (and our family) he wasn’t sent overseas until August 1918, arriving in England only 13 days before Armistice.
    However he wasn’t shipped back home until a year later, arriving back on the ‘Hororata” with 1414 other troops on board, all bound for homes and waiting families throughout New Zealand.
    They travelled home via Capetown, Durban, and Hobart – where they couldn’t land due to the influenza epidemic, so the YMCA contacted the ship to ask if they needed anything, and sent 750 packets of cigarettes on board at the request of the men. On arrival in Wellington, they berthed at the Queen’s Wharf, having been passed as a ‘clean ship’ .


  2. Helen Solomons says:

    Cigarettes were a great ‘comfort’ to the men during both wars, often making up most of the parcels sent overseas. Your story of your grandfather is a happy one unlike so many others who lost their loved ones in the battles. At least he got to see a bit of London on such a special day as it sounds as if he didn’t see much else on his voyage home! Thank you for sharing your story.


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