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Looking Back: The end of ‘The war to end all wars’

November 11, 2018

In the wee small hours of the morning of November 11, 1918, Kankakee residents were jolted out of a sound sleep by a tidal wave of noise from factory and train whistles, sirens, and church bells.

The cause of all that noise was news that World War I (described by President Woodrow Wilson as “the war to end all wars”) had come to an end. The news had arrived by telegraph in the offices of the Kankakee Daily Republican at 2:30 a.m. and spread quickly to local factories, railroad offices and churches.

Later in the day, the newspaper described the effect on the city and its residents: “Citizens jumped out of their beds and put on their clothes to venture out into a frosty morning and celebrate. Pandemonium broke out everywhere.”

Although word that an armistice had been reached was announced at 2:30 a.m. (9:30 a.m. in France) the actual end of fighting would not take place for another hour and a half. Officially, hostilities would cease at 11 a.m. on November 11 (often referenced as “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”).

By that time (4 a.m. in Kankakee), the local celebration was well underway. “A great crowd got out and gathered in the business district,” reported the newspaper as part of a lengthy account. “Bells were rung, tin pans beaten and firearms shot off to add to the din of the noise. ... Huge bonfires were built at the corner of Schuyler Avenue and Court Street and on South East Avenue. ... The blaze served not only as a means of celebrating, but as a means of keeping the celebrators warm.”

Before dawn, an impromptu parade was formed “led by a grizzled old veteran of many summers, who played a violin.” A more formally organized parade got underway at 9 a.m., headed by a brass band and three companies of Illinois Reserve Militia. “There is no way of estimating how long the parade was,” commented the Republican. “Hundreds of automobiles and vehicles of every description were in line besides several hundred marchers. Never was the city of Kankakee turned so completely upside down.”

Crowds lined the downtown streets “more than 10 deep,” swelled by children from schools that were dismissed for the day, and employees of businesses that had closed for the festivities. “Practically all business houses had their doors closed,” the newspaper noted. “All the clerks were celebrating and besides, other people had no time to do shopping.”

A significant business closure was the city’s saloons: Police Chief L.B. Rogers ordered them to shut down for the day as a “precaution against drunkenness and orgies.” The chief’s decision proved to be a wise one, as reported the following day by the Republican: “A glorious day of celebration ... turned into a day of debauchery and lawless destruction of property,” it declared. “Despite the fact that the saloons were closed all day, it appears that a certain element of the city ... carried on disgraceful scenes which were little less than horrifying to all self-respecting people. ... the mob began early yesterday afternoon to make the rounds of houses belonging to people of German birth and German descent and daubing the buildings with yellow paint.”

Led by “a drunken chimney sweep,” the crowd “grew until it finally numbered several hundred, most of whom were simply sightseers.” Although most of the incidents involved vandalism in the form of yellow paint applied to buildings, one encounter was more serious: a man whose house was being attacked confronted the chimney sweep. When someone in the crowd shouted ‘Paint his whiskers,’ the chimney sweep “quickly shoved the paint into the man’s face.” At this point, the police decided it was time to break up the rowdy group and arrest its leader.

In the same issue of the Republican that described the vandalism, another article listed the names of the 33 young men from Kankakee County who had died in the just-ended conflict. “While all Kankakee is celebrating with patriotic fervor the mightiest victory that has ever been won by arms, she must not forget that ... she has approximately 33 martyrs to the cause,” the newspaper noted. “They have made the supreme sacrifice for their country.” While 14 of the men were killed in action or died of wounds, 19 fell victim to disease; of those, 15 were claimed by the widespread Spanish Flu epidemic.

The description of the conflict as “the war to end all wars” proved to be sadly inaccurate; two decades later, an even larger and more deadly war broke out in Europe and later spread worldwide.

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