Armistice Day & the Spanish Flu

Armistice Day in 1918 signalled the end of World War One, but a day of celebrations turned into a super-spreader event as revellers took to the streets in their thousands.

Armistice Day & the Spanish Flu
The end of World War One is announced at Parliament in Wellington. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19181128-45-3.

The 11th day of the 11th month commemorates Armistice Day, the official end to the ‘war to end all wars’ in 1918, World War One. But while this date marked the end of one global tragedy, it also sparked the beginning of another; Spanish Flu was sweeping the world as flu-carrying soldiers and civilians dispersed from Europe’s battlefields.

In six short weeks 9,000 lives would be lost in New Zealand, adding to the tally of up to 50 million globally. Armistice Day would feature heavily in the outcome for New Zealand, which suffered one of the highest mortality rates in the world.

11th November in 1918, brought thousands of Kiwis onto the streets, despite last minute efforts by authorities to cancel official celebrations as flu cases spread; the threat of an unseen enemy could not prevent the nation’s desire to revel in a new found peace. And as people flocked to town halls, parks and pubs, this inaugural day became a super-spreader event, fuelling the spread of the deadly H1N1 virus throughout the country.

Canterbury University’s Professor Geoff Rice, is an expert in the history of Spanish Flu. Here he explains how Armistice day and other large public gatherings coinciding with the day, escalated the Spanish Flu pandemic in Aotearoa.

“Auckland was the first New Zealand city to suffer the severe second wave of the 1918 pandemic. In the last days of October the flu seemed ‘burst out’ right across the city, with public services increasingly crippled by absenteeism. Auckland Hospital was soon swamped with flu cases. Infection reached Wellington directly from Auckland both by rail and sea. There were no restrictions on train travel in late October, and daily passenger services brought hundreds of travellers to the capital each day.

“Armistice celebrations to mark the end of hostilities in Europe had been planned in both Auckland and Wellington, but health officials persuaded the Wellington City Council to cancel its big street parade, from fear of spreading infection among the crowds. Unfortunately, in both Wellington and Christchurch informal celebrations went ahead, defeating the best intentions of officialdom. In Wellington the Patriotic Committee’s brass band played familiar wartime tunes from the balcony of the Grand Hotel, attracting a large crowd of singing cheering people. As in Auckland, celebrating crowds only helped to spread the influenza virus more widely.

While some people were celebrating, other people at the Christchurch races were collapsing on the lawn with influenza.
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Crowds at Armistice Day celebrations in Dunedin 1918. CC Dunedin City Council Archives.

“Christchurch had an even more efficient mechanism for spreading infection. Influenza had returned to the city at the worst possible time of year. The anniversary holiday for Canterbury Province (previously on 16 December) had been moved to early November to become ‘Peoples’ Day’ at the annual Canterbury Agricultural & Pastoral Show.

"This was probably the largest such show in New Zealand in 1918, and many farming families from across the South Island made it their annual holiday, so that Christchurch hotels and boarding houses were always fully booked in early November.

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A crowd of people celebrating Armistice Day in Cathedral Square, Christchurch, 12 November 1918. Photograph by Samuel Heath Head. 1/1-007108-G Alexander Turnbull Library.

"‘Carnival Week’ usually had special concerts and theatrical entertainments, as well as the annual Hunt Club ball, so there were additional mixing sites for spreading the influenza virus. In addition to the Show, ‘Carnival Week’ also featured two of the country’s most important race meetings, the New Zealand Cup at Riccarton and the New Zealand Trotting Cup at the Addington trotting grounds. Hundreds of punters ignored the prevailing flu to come down from Wellington on the ferry steamers to attend the races. The A & P showgrounds shared a fence with the trotting grounds, and for two or three days crowds could surge freely between both sites.

“News of a so-called ‘False Armistice’ reached Christchurch on People’s Day at the Show, Friday 8 November. This was a premature announcement released by an American news agency, with Armistice itself not confirmed until the following week, on 11 November. Like the Patriotic Society’s band in Wellington, Derry’s brass band at the Canterbury Show played patriotic airs to a large crowd which soon began to celebrate in the beer tents and hotel bars. While some were celebrating, other people at the races were collapsing on the lawn with influenza and were being taken by St John ambulance to Christchurch Hospital. These premature celebrations at the Show were later implicated as a major factor in the rapid spread of infection in Christchurch. Country visitors returning to their homes in rural areas and small towns took the infection with them.”  

One hundred years later, as Covid-19 swept the globe, governments remembered the lessons from 1918, banning large gatherings of people. The super-spreading nature of crowds with their singing and celebration, were proven breeding grounds for the propagation and spread of infection.