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Peace and Victory Celebrations

Both spontaneous and officially approved celebrations occurred in Melbourne at the conclusion of each of the major 20th-century wars: the South African War in 1902, the Great European War in 1918-19, the war in Europe in May 1945 and the Pacific War in August 1945. Victory Day was celebrated in June 1946. As the federal capital until 1927, Melbourne was the focus of official national peace celebrations at the end of both the Boer War and World War I. By contrast, the end of World War II was announced from Canberra.

When the South African (Second Anglo-Boer) War ended in May 1902, celebrations in Melbourne reflected relief that 'peace with honour' had been achieved. Although the relief of Mafeking in May 1900 had seen wilder celebrations, peace was marked by enthusiastic hoisting of flags, sounding of bells and factory whistles, and singing of patriotic songs. The courts and government offices closed; members of the stock exchange marched around a city block, and a patriotic demonstration was held at the Melbourne Town Hall. While Protestant churches held thanksgiving services, the Catholic Advocate denounced the victory as inglorious. The Peace Society rejoiced at the ending of the dreadful war of 'aggression and conquest' but lamented the harsh terms imposed on the Boer republics.

False rumours of a German armistice ending World War I circulated in Melbourne on Friday, 8 November 1918, but premature celebrations were soon checked. When, on 11 November, confirmation of the armistice was posted outside newspaper offices at 7 p.m., crowds alerted by train and tram drivers poured into the city. The spirit was described as spontaneous and joyous, even tumultuous, but orderly. Tuesday, 12 November was declared a public holiday, with hotels within 15 miles (24 km) of the city closed. A celebratory meeting was held at the Town Hall, and stockbrokers marched, but the good-humoured celebrations developed a riotous edge. Youths, described variously as 'slackers', 'shirkers' and 'racecourse wasters', attempted to derail trams and in the evening bombarded the crowd with fireworks. Wednesday was quieter: churches were packed for thanksgiving services, and hotels were permitted to open from 4 p.m. An 'In Memoriam' service was held on the steps of the federal parliament on Sunday, 17 November, with a military parade. The alternating revelry and solemnity ended on Monday, 25 November, when the first party of returning Anzacs marched through the city, but authorities were criticised for their failure to control the celebrations.

Three days of celebrations were planned to celebrate the peace treaty, but an extended seamen's strike saw the event contracted to a single Peace Day, observed on Saturday, 19 July. After a morning 'Victory March', crowds dispersed to the theatres, races and football. Power restrictions marred planned illuminations. Over the following three days, the city was shaken by soldier unrest. Confrontations between returned soldiers and police culminated in an attack on Victoria Barracks, during which one returned soldier was mortally wounded. On Monday, 21 July, 3000 returned soldiers confronted premier H.S.W. Lawson, who, in the subsequent melee, was severely assaulted. Lawson declared his government's determination to maintain law and order; the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (RSL) and senior military officers appealed to returned men not to be led astray by 'wasters' and 'revolutionaries'; patriotic motions were passed by ex-servicemen rallied in the Kings Domain. But shaken authorities were left wary of large street assemblages.

These memories conditioned celebrations following the end of World War II. As Australians were still fighting in the Pacific, the Prime Minister, John Curtin, decreed that VE (Victory in Europe) Day would be celebrated with 'gratitude that a terrible phase of the struggle has ended', rather than 'an orgy involving laxity in public behaviour'. Citizens were urged to attend a midday thanksgiving service in the city or at their suburban churches. Arrangements for police to be concentrated in the city and for trams to be kept out indicate a concern with crowd-control rather than celebration. Wednesday, 9 May 1945, two days after the German surrender, was declared a public holiday, but hotels, restaurants and amusements were closed. A funeral-like crowd gathered at the Shrine, although young people defied this official sombreness by celebrating in the city in the evening.

The startling atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki early in August led to the eager anticipation of the end of hostilities. Celebrations started on the evening of Friday, 10 August, as radio suggested that Japan was about to surrender, but the morning papers advised that 'Today is not V-P Day'. Looting early that Saturday morning brought calls for decency, but attempts to control the celebrations were overtaken by events. Melburnians demanded real rejoicing to match Sydney's spectacular celebration. Exuberant crowds assembled in the city in the evenings and carpenters boarded up shop windows. When Japan surrendered on 15 August, Melburnians flocked into the streets. A calmer, second V-P Day on 16 August saw 200 000 attend a thanksgiving service at the Shrine; that evening the city was again packed with revellers. The Chinese community brought out their dragon to celebrate V-C (Victory for China) Day. On Friday, 25 August, 30 000 servicemen and defence workers marched in a Victory Parade.

The Victory Day march - Monday, 10 June 1946 - was led by General Sir Thomas Blamey. Festivities continued throughout the afternoon, concluding with a street parade. Outside the Town Hall, crowds mobbed the marchers, passing out beer from nearby pubs. Apart from some hooliganism and brawling, the crowds remained good-humoured, but in the evening, the immense crush led to injuries around Flinders Street on Princes Bridge.

These celebrations were Melbourne's largest and most demonstrative. The Korean War (1950-53) ended in a truce, and Australia's war in Vietnam (1962-72) ended in defeat. Although units returning from various engagements have been honoured, the largest war-related celebration since 1945 was the Australia Remembers 1945-1995 parade in Melbourne on 15 August 1995.

John Lack