A peace celebration float depicting the battlecruiser HMS New Zealand in Queen Street, Masterton, in front of C.E. Daniell's shop. A large group of children dressed in naval uniform stand on the float. The ship was built around a traction engine and took part in parades, as well as being photographed on the water by driving the engine into a river.
Most communities celebrated soldiers' day on Saturday the 19th, but even where it was celebrated on another day it usually followed the same format.
The main event was generally a procession through the main street or streets. The processions tended to be held in the morning and involve both military and civilians. Auckland's parade, though particularly large, mirrors processions held in other communities around the country. It left from the city’s waterfront at 10.30 a.m. and proceeded up Queen Street towards the Domain. It was led by veterans of previous wars. They were followed by wounded and returned soldiers, and then territorial and cadet units. As the military section tailed off Queen Street East, the civic section came in from the western end of the street. This included returned nurses and representatives from patriotic organisations like the Navy League, societies like the YWCA, and local government agencies like the Harbour Board. Last in the procession was the trades' display which included floats and decorated vehicles from businesses like the Colonial Ammunition Company.
Many businesses tried to capitalise on the peace celebrations, however tenuous the link. An advertisement for Auckland dentist J.H. Kinnear's, 19 July 1919, read 'There can be no perfect peace without perfect teeth'.
The processions weren't the only way businesses got involved. Many companies elaborately decorated their buildings, particularly if they were on one of the procession routes. Retailers held sales, or encouraged custom by emphasising their war credentials, promoting their roll of honour or their commitment to British-made goods.
Auckland and other main centres were able to call on large numbers to participate in their processions, but those in smaller communities were no less impressive. Masterton's procession was more than 1.6-km long: its floats included large models of a tank, a minesweeper, and HMS New Zealand, the battlecruiser the country had gifted to the Royal Navy.
The processions generally halted sometime before noon. The King's peace proclamation was read and when noon struck everyone removed their hats for five minutes of silence. On 30 July the Weekly Press described the moment of silence in Cathedral Square, Christchurch:
The hour struck, and every man bared his head. Tram cars and motors ceased running, and a tense silence fell. A furlong or more away a motor horn sounded and seemed to be choked in its desecrating alarm, and then a holy and reverent silence once more fell, till the boom of the first gun of the salute fired in the park carried to the waiting ears. The spirit of the dead seemed to hover round.
In most communities the silence was followed by buglers playing the last post. Dunedin went one step further, with buglers stationed at the Town Hall, Knox Church, Pine Hill Terrace, Rosslyn, Mornington, St Clair and Andersons Bay.
Some communities, like Christchurch and Dunedin, had other events in the morning and held their processions in the afternoon. But in most places the afternoon was devoted to sporting activities, ranging from track-and-field events and football matches to more lighthearted activities like pillow fights. In Strath Taieri, for example, the afternoon's events included 'children's races, returned soldiers' race, serpentine race, tent pegging, lemon cutting, various races for adults and motor obstacle driving'.
Several communities planted trees during the celebrations to mark the coming of peace. Some were planted on Soldiers' Day, as in Hawera; others were planted on Children’s Day, as in New Plymouth, Takapuna and Papakura. On 19 July, 'Peace Day' in Manurewa, an entire avenue of trees was planted in Hall Road: 16 in memory of fallen soldiers, one in memory of Nurse Edith Cavell, and one in memory of peace.
As evening fell the activities continued in most communities, with dances, torchlight processions, bonfires and fireworks the most popular entertainments. The torchlight processions were somewhat different to those held earlier in the day, with a greater emphasis on music and costumes. They were often followed by massive fireworks displays; Wellington, for example, spent over £400 on fireworks.
The fireworks displays were often preceded or succeeded by a bonfire. In some places a single large bonfire was lit, as on Mt Eden in Auckland. Elsewhere, several were lit at once, including the city of Dunedin and around the entire Bay of Plenty district. The Bay of Plenty community later erected a memorial to mark this event. Burning effigies of the Kaiser on bonfires was a popular activity in the South Island: in Amberley his effigy was said to have been 'blown to pieces', while in Ellesmere it was 'burnt to a cinder'.
In areas that weren't dependent on coal for their electricity supply many buildings were illuminated; touring illuminations was a popular night-time activity. Christchurch, which got its power from Lake Coleridge, had an extensive display. Buildings were lit in red, white and blue and adorned with messages like 'Peace with honour, justice and freedom' (Christchurch Press) and 'All honour to our boys' (Crown Clothing Company). Though the illuminations continued until children's day, the city was said to be 'absolutely blocked' with people viewing the illuminations on soldiers' day. Because of the coal shortage some centres, like Wellington, didn’t have illuminations. In Auckland no government buildings were illuminated, although the local council managed to reserve enough coal to light up the Town Hall and Ferry Building.
Soldiers' day was a day and night full of activity and entertainment, and for most communities this was just the first of three days of peace celebrations.