The Armistice: November 11, 1918

On November 11, 1918, an eerie silence descended on the scarred battlefields of Europe. The Armistice had been signed and the First Great War came to an end. A number of European nations had bled themselves white during four years of senseless carnage which had started on August 1914 and which eventually involved the USA three years later. This tragic folly was supposed to end all wars. Instead it made the Second World War of 1939 inevitable.

The war in Europe had caused a temporary halt in the migratory movement. Within Europe itself old communities which had been established for centuries were either wiped out or uprooted. This upheaval made mass emigration inevitable after hostilities had come to an end on Armistice Day.

Russia gave up the struggle in 1917 because of internal chaos which eventually brought the Bolshevik Revolution and that country not only rid itself of the monarchy but was to be the first nation to officially proclaim itself a Communist state.

Austria had declared war on Serbia in order to teach that upstart nation an enduring lesson. Instead, after the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Austro-Hungarian Empire disintegrated into various states. While Austria was reduced to the city of Vienna with a few historic towns and cities, Serbia was enlarged and became Yugoslavia.

The German Kaiser, Wilhelm H, had to abdicate. He died in Holland in 1941. The Ottoman Empire, which for so many years had been nicknamed "the sick man of Europe" eventually disappeared and the Turks left Europe except for Constantinople and the adjacent territory which guarded the entry into the Sea of Marmora and the Black Sea.

Peace was officially declared in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles. The emerging German Weimar Republic laboured under the extremely harsh conditions insisted upon by Georges Clemenceau who was then Prime Minister of France. The determination of this sturdy defender of the French Republic was mainly responsible for imposing stiff reparations on the Germans. Clemenceau's intransigence made the rise of Nazism inevitable.

Political confrontation in Europe discouraged many people who felt that the Old Continent had no future and that Versailles had set the course for destruction. From the Urals to the Pyrenees many started packing their belongings to go to America. It was then thought that the shores of America offered the only safe haven from famine, unemployment, extreme nationalism and Bolshevism. Europeans sought refuge and hope in America. They left Europe in their millions.

The President of the USA, Woodrow Wilson, presented his famous Fourteen Points to his European partners. He insisted on the principle of self-determination for subject races and for the removal of trade barriers between nations. These same nations were to communicate with each other through "open diplomacy". Wilson suggested the creation of the League of Nations which he envisaged as an international body which was to provide an open forum for all governments. In such a forum litigants could air their differences in the hope of settling them by peaceful means.

Ironically the US Congress refused to involve the country in the experiment proposed by the American President. This was a tragic decision which greatly reduced the efficiency of the League. Germany and Russia were denied membership, though both nations eventually joined the League in 1935.

The effects and consequences of the First World War (1914-1918) were many. Central and Eastern Europe became a mosaic of small nations which felt very ill at ease with each other. Germany chafed under the humiliations of Versailles and Italy felt that although it was on the side of the victors, the sacrifice made did not justify the gains received. Latent resentments were soon in the open. Capitalism was being challenged by Communism and the evils of extreme nationalism were again tearing Europe apart. By 1939 Germany had recovered sufficient strength to challenge her rivals both in the East and in the West. When the Second World War came to an end, Europe had lost its predominant role in international affairs.

By 1919 much of the old structure of Europe had been destroyed. Communism and nationalism meant the end of the old Colonial Empires. Woodrow Wilson's principle of self-determination meant that the empires of Vienna and Constantinople were to be broken into small geographical entities based on language or race. The pre-1914 map of Europe was now outdated as emergent nations achieved their cherished independence.

Such drastic changes inevitably brought economic chaos, political confusion and great social unrest. Communism was presented as the only solution to the poverty and insecurity of the masses. Nationalism had made interdependence impossible. The European stage was being prepared for the rise of the dictators. Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. Benito Mussolini brought Fascism to the Italians. Joseph Stalin's spectre was to terrify the Soviet Union for many years. Kemal Ataturk proposed a new secular Turkey to his people who saw in him the saviour of their country. Joseph Pilsudski held the reins in Poland as did Francisco Franco in Spain and Antonio de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal.

The war had its effects on the way of life of the Maltese. Martial Law had been proclaimed by Governor Sir Henry Rundle on August 2, 1914. Censorship was imposed on newspapers and paper money replaced gold coins. There was a steep rise in prices and some commodities became scarce. Sugar, bread, kerosene and meat were difficult to obtain.

On the positive side of the situation, the Maltese were left out of actual fighting. A number of Maltese did volunteer and some were lost at sea and on the fronts. British and French vessels sought the security of Maltese harbours from German submarines. By 1915 the Dockyard was brimful with work.

In May of that same year the Maltese saw the first of hospital ships enter the harbour and many watched in silence as young men left their ships on stretchers or on crutches. Maltese doctors and nurses helped some 80,000 sick and wounded and Malta's kindness to these men earned her the affectionate title of "Nurse of the Mediterranean". Many of the sick and wounded were from Australia and New Zealand. These had suffered horribly from the Turks during the Gallipoli Campaign at a place now known in history as Anzac Cove.

Many of these soldiers were nursed back to health, but others found their final rest in Maltese graves. In one particular cemetery situated at Pieta one thousand two hundred and seventy six men from Australia and New Zealand lie buried. The experience of wounded men who regained their health in Maltese hospitals, some of whom married local girls, and the resting places of so many gallant young men forged a sentimental link between Maltese and Australians. Such a link was to prove useful when Maltese leaders vindicated the right of their migrants to call themselves British and therefore to be considered not as foreigners but as friends and allies.

The war had brought thousands of Allied soldiers and sailors to the shores of the Maltese islands. There were also a considerable number of German, Austrian and Turkish prisoners. The presence of these men swelled the population which had already been increased by returned emigrants from Tunisia and Algeria. The addition of so many extra mouths to feed and the economic dislocation brought about by the war caused a severe strain on the economy of Malta which, at that time, still depended largely on factors beyond the control of the Maltese themselves. These factors were popularly referred to as "steamer, soldier and sailor". At the sitting of the Council of Government held on February 1, 1919, one of the members, Mr. F. Azzopardi remarked: "Complaints are general, owing to the limitations of imports ... a shortage of the most necessary food-stuffs with the consequent excessiveness of prices which in many cases are prohibitive".

When the war was in its third year the cost of living in Malta had more than doubled while wages had increased by only 10%. Although during the war jobs were available not many were earning enough money to keep going. Prices of basic necessities had increased beyond control. Thus the price of bread had gone up by 125%; vegetables by 200%; milk by 200%; meat by 250%. Very often these items were not only very expensive but actually unavailable. The threat of the German U-Boats had made shipping hazardous.

Industrial unrest was inevitable. On May 7, 1917, the Imperial Government Workers Union proclaimed a strike at the Dockyard. That strike was a serious warning to the Imperial Authorities. The workers had shown that they were capable of fighting for just wages even if they risked being accused of treason at a time when a war was going on. Two days later the workers marched into Valletta to present a petition to the Governor, Sir Paul Methuen. The petition demanded higher wages. Eventually a small rise was granted to the workers at the Dockyard but the clash between the workers and the British Authorities was only postponed.

A White Paper on the financial state of Malta had shown that while the revenue of the Island in 1918 had amounted to £435,497, expenditure had totalled £449,247. Imports had fallen from £3,318,412 to £2,287,420. This decrease was due to the difficulty of importing things at a time when shipping in the Mediterranean was very hazardous.

At the 69th Annual General Meeting of the Chamber of Commerce held on December 12, 1918, the President of that body, Col. J.L. Francia, made suggestions of increased taxation to meet the rise in expenditure. Among Francia's suggestions the most unpopular were:

  1. additions to the "ad valorem" and other duties;
  2. increases in port duties;
  3. tax on entertainment;
  4. increases in stamp duties;
  5. succession and legacy duties.

While suggestions for further taxation were being mooted, it must be remembered that the Maltese had no real representation at the seat of power. The British Governor was the complete overlord. He was helped by a Council of Government which was not representative of the people. Great Britain had declared war in 1914 to protect the freedom of small nations. Malta was a very small nation with no representative government. The Maltese had agitated for self-government for a long time. Now, after the Treaty of Versailles many small nations in Europe were being declared independent. Versailles accepted in 1919, as prerogatives of distinct nationhood, natural boundaries, ethnic identity, a national language, religion and culture. The Maltese felt they possessed such distinctive qualities which were backed by a long and eventful history.

There were also a number of articulate politicians who agitated for the removal of Malta's colonial status. In 1918 Dr. F. Sceberras issued a call to all constituted bodies to send representatives for a national meeting. The aim of this meeting was to send a petition to London to request self-government for the Maltese. This historic meeting was called a National Assembly and was convened on February 25, 1919. A resolution was unanimously carried which stated that the Maltese had voluntarily placed themselves under British protection for more than a century and were now demanding home rule for their island. It also expected the British Government to grant to Malta all those rights which the Treaty of Versailles had assured to small nations.

The National Assembly of 1919 was largely a creation of the upper classes of Maltese society. The emergence of the working classes was slow but in 1919 it was already apparent. The Dockyard strike of 1917 had given power and popularity to the Imperial Government Workers Union. This same union had taken part in the proceedings of the National Assembly. By then so many Dockyard workers had been given the sack since the Armistice that the voice of the labouring masses was becoming more strident.

In 1911 the civil population of Malta was 21 1,000. Half that figure were either unemployed or unproductive. Some 52,000 had declared they did not have a steady job. Although between 1914 and 1918 jobs had become available because of the war, by 1919 the economic plight of the Maltese had grown even more dramatic. Peace had brought redundancies and unemployment.

The Naval Dockyard had provided work for 15,000 men during the war. In 1919 the Admiralty was insisting that 5,000 workers were enough for the maintenance of the Fleet. Other military establishments were firing redundant workers and many had found themselves without jobs which had been related to the war effort. Others who had sailed with the Merchant Navy had come home to find no jobs available for them. Such drastic measures had brought the number of unemployed to 20,000. It came as no surprise when many began thinking of emigrating. In the period between 1919 and 1920 some 10,000 Maltese left their homes to seek employment abroad, mostly in American cities.

Unemployment, poverty and political frustration were the main factors which contributed to the general unrest among the Maltese in 1919. One commentator described the feeling of the Maltese on February 27, 1919.

"No Nation is immune from the prevailing spirit of unrest, and we are no exception. There can be no doubt that Malta is in a state of unrest, and we are no exception. There can be no doubt that Malta is in a state of dire distress. What lies at the root of our individual unrest and what are the causes of our complaints?"

The writer gave his reasons for the prevailing situation which was to explode into serious violence four months later. He complained that food was very expensive, of poor quality and scarce. He felt that the Food Board was not doing enough to check rascals and profiteers who were making money at the expense of the ordinary people. Importers should be checked, particularly those responsible for the importation of coal who were compelling civilians to pay six times as much as other sections of the public.

The British public was not unaware of the hardships suffered by the Maltese. One influential newspaper had a comment to make: "Malta has a population of nearly a quarter of a million and is a strategic centre of vital importance to the whole British Empire. Of this population over 30,000 men served as soldiers, sailors and dockyard workers for nearly the entire period of the war. They returned finding no work; thousands were necessarily discharged from the dockyard. Con-tractors and small businessmen found their businesses ruined through the establishment of the Government monopoly in the Navy and Army Canteen. These men were hungry and half-fed for months until they determined to emigrate".

There had been subtle changes in the Maltese way of life. Mr Henry Casolani, who was himself appointed as superintendent of emigration, had this to say about the changes in Maltese mentality after the war: "Rice eaters became bread eaters. The automobile displaced the horse conveyance. The dancing hall and the cinema became national institutions. Silk took the place of the longcloth and dungarees. And the pound sterling became the measure of the workman's wage".

The same writer stated that between 1918 and 1920 there was "a wonderful exodus which saved the country from anarchy and starvation". This wonderful exodus was that of some 10,000 emigrants who had left Malta, mostly for North America. In the same period four times that number had applied for their passports but only 27,000 were passed through the selective system applied by the Emigration Committee.

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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