“The town’s gone wild”: Sounds of Victory in Toronto, 11 November 1918

By Sara Karn

Come along, be merry, join our Jubilee.
Mars has got the knock-out, Peace is in, you see.
Toot your little tooter, deck yourself with flags.
Grab your feather tickler, be among the wags.
Don’t forget the powder, sprinkle it around.
Laugh-it will not hurt you; make you strong and sound.
Show you are a human – be just as a child.
Everybody’s happy; the town’s gone wild.
Take your wife or sweetheart, stroll on Yonge or Queen.
Million flags are waving; oh what sights are seen!
Smiles, about ten million greet you everywhere.
Everybody’s busy – busy chasing care.
Climb into an auto, choose a truck or Ford;
Blow your little whistle; What a din, Oh, Lord!
Peace, we bid you welcome, woman, man, and child.
Everybody’s happy; the town’s gone wild.[1]

When the First World War came to an end at 11:00am on 11 November 1918, the battlefields fell silent but there was an explosion of sound around the world in celebration of victory and peace. In Toronto, people emerged from their beds in the early hours of the morning to join spontaneous gatherings in the streets. Later in the afternoon, many cheered-on the floats and marching bands in organized parades. As described by Toronto resident, Robert Todd, in the above poem, the streets of Canada’s largest city were filled with men, women, and children waving flags, tooting horns, and blowing whistles. Indeed, the town had gone wild.

While most of the scholarship on the First World War focuses on what was observed by people at the time, providing a visuocentric perspective, this post explores the aural aspects of armistice celebrations in Toronto on 11 November 1918. Through examining newspaper accounts and photographs of armistice celebrations, we gain a better understanding of the soundscapes that emerged and how they contributed to the euphoria of victory.[2] This approach offers new insights into armistice celebration, showing that sounds played a critical part in how people interacted with their environment when the war ended. The post also demonstrates that attention to sound can help us engage with history by increasing our understanding of lived experience and the creation of meaning in the past.

“The sleepers awakened at the sound”

 In the early hours of 11 November, while most Canadians were still asleep, a wireless message began circling the globe, delivering news that the Germans had signed the armistice. Some who heard the news were a little uncertain at first, questioning whether this was simply a repeat of the previous week’s false armistice on 7 November. However, this sentiment did not last long and Torontonians were soon awake and celebrating. According to the Globe, “The bells broke into one resonant voice; the shrill whistles, the screaming sirens and the bellowing horns joined in the joyful chorus. One by one the sleepers awakened at the sound…”[3] So it was a combination of sounds that first announced the armistice in Toronto, from whistles and sirens to bells and horns.

Figure 1: This cartoon depicts the many sounds heard by Torontonians when peace was declared on the morning of 11 November 1918. Telegram, 12 November 1918. All images used with permission.

Although these were familiar sounds to residents, they were heard outside of their usual context. Church bells usually rang to announce each daylight hour or to honour marriages and funerals, sirens were heard when fires broke out, and factory whistles marked the beginning and end of shifts. It was out of the ordinary for these sounds to be heard in combination, so this new, early morning soundscape alerted Torontonians that big news had come, and it did not take long to figure out what it was.

From Patriotic Sounds to Religious Sounds

After the initial wake-up call, the celebrations began and continued all day—and well into the night—across Toronto. According to the Daily Star, “The city was awake for the full 24 hours. Awake and letting the world know it. There was almost enough noise for Berlin to hear the roar of triumph.”[4] Factories were shut down, shops were closed, and streetcars stopped providing services to allow everyone to attend parades, thanksgiving services, and bonfires. As a result, many of the conventional sounds of everyday life were halted and new soundscapes were overlaid on the city. These Toronto soundscapes combined wartime sounds, such as gunfire and aerial flypasts, with more joyful sounds of peace and victory, including cheering and singing. The sounds of victory can be organized into two main categories: patriotic sounds and religious sounds. Overall, the patriotic sounds were celebratory in nature, and therefore loud and often dissonant, while religious sounds adopted a more sombre tone out of respect for the war dead.

Patriotic sounds were prominent in Toronto throughout the day, heard in the song selections for marching bands and speeches delivered to crowds. The main feature of celebrations in Toronto was the Victory Loan parade, fittingly already planned for 11 November, which made its way through the major streets of the city “amid a crescendo of cheering.”[5] It was estimated that somewhere between one to two hundred thousand enthusiastic citizens watched and listened. There were people and automobiles crowded together on the streets (see figure 2), as well as people leaning out of windows and on the lookout from their rooftops. A unique feature that evoked wartime sounds during the celebrations in Toronto was the flypast of fifteen airplanes in battle formation as part of the parade. The planes performed stunts “swooping around the steeples of St. James Cathedral,” and one plane even flew low enough to ‘bombard’ the crowd with literature.[6]

Figure 2: This photograph shows large crowds of people and automobiles celebrating peace at Terauley and Queen Streets. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 889.

Nine brass and pipe bands, including the famous United States Navy Band led by Lieutenant John Philip Sousa, played patriotic music while marching on parade, and the Highlanders band struck up the well-known Canadian war song, “We’ll Never Let the Old Flag Fall.” Other patriotic sounds were more spontaneous than the organized melodies of marching bands. The munitionettes yelled to the crowds from their floats, and veterans were met with cheers as they marched on parade. Children and youth also contributed to the sounds of victory by cheering, tooting horns, setting off firecrackers, and beating tin cans. It was through these joyful sounds that Torontonians celebrated the end of war’s hardships and the imminent return of their loved ones.

Figure 3: Boys in Toronto bang tin lids and garbage cans in the streets. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 891C.

Figure 4: A young girl bangs tin lids together while riding on the front of a Ford automobile on armistice day. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 905.

Thanksgiving services were also held for all denominations throughout the day in many locations, during which bells chimed and hymns were sung, connecting a gratitude for peace with an element of mourning the war dead. Although the church bells heard across Toronto could be considered celebratory, in many cases the sounds were organized to create melodies that were traditionally associated with bereavement. The official celebrations ended with a service of thanksgiving held in front of the Parliament Buildings at Queen’s Park. The joining of voices to sing hymns was compared by one witness to “the sound of many waters.”[7] The tone of the service was quiet and solemn, and ended with a silent moment of prayer to remember those killed during the war. Many of the religious sounds of victory and peace in Toronto were markedly different from those heard elsewhere in the city.


 The painting “Armistice Day, Toronto,” created by Canadian artist Joseph Sampson in 1918, captures the overall atmosphere of armistice celebrations in Toronto. It illustrates a brightly-coloured scene that can almost be heard. Elements of the city’s soundscape on 11 November are depicted in the painting, like ticker tape being tossed from windows onto the cheering crowds below. The poem that introduced this post described similar sounds, from horns and whistles to cheering and merriment. Together, these sources provide a sense of the sounds of victory in Toronto.

Figure 5: Joseph Ernest Sampson, Armistice Day, Toronto, CWM 19710261-0655, Beaverbrook Collection of War Art, Canadian War Museum

Sara Karn graduated from the Master of Arts in History program at Wilfrid Laurier University in 2017. Her research examined popular songs composed on the home front in Canada during the First World War. Prior to attending Laurier, Sara earned a B.A. and B.Ed. in the Concurrent Education program at Nipissing University. She currently works for the Vimy Foundation as a student battlefield tour leader and teaches high school in the Thames Valley District School Board. You can follow her on twitter @sara_karn.

 [1] Robert Todd, “The Town’s Gone Wild,” Toronto World, 12 November 1918, 4.

[2] The term ‘soundscape’ refers to a field of sound that includes noise, the sounds of nature, and sounds produced by both people and machines. Outi Ampuja, “Perspectives on the Acoustic Ecology of War,” in The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War, eds. Simo Laakkonen, Richard Tucker, and Timo Vuorisalo (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017), 176.

[3] “Toronto Knows No Restraint in Hailing Peace’s Coming,” Globe, 12 November 1918, 1.

[4] “Toronto Hails Peace in Delirium of Joy,” Daily Star, 12 November 1918, 5.

[5] “Big Victory Loan Parade Feature of Celebrations,” Globe, 12 November 1918, 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Vast Crowd Renders Thanks for Victory,” Globe, 11 November 1918, 9.

ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of  “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War that began in 2014.

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