Today is Veteran’s Day. Days like today mean more than light traffic on the freeway, no school, mail or banking, although it seems some people only look at it that way. This is a tradition that started with a great relief that the War to End All Wars was over. That is certainly reason to celebrate! You might have heard of Armistice Day, or maybe not. Let’s learn a little bit about this holiday that we don’t really celebrate any more.
World War 1 was raging in Europe since 1914 and America had become involved in April 1917. At the time it was referred to as The Great War, and really, it was a great and terrible war with battle tactics that shock our senses still today. Trench warfare was bloody and almost certainly fatal to participants. Initially, America had adopted a policy of neutrality, both militarily and in terms of ongoing trade and finance. The President at the time, Woodrow Wilson, was seen as a peacemaker who sought treaties and peaceful resolution to the war on several occasions. Up until Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917, he was seen to have given every effort to keep America safe while helping to broker peace in Europe. Within the first three months of 1917, seven American merchant ships had been sunk and Germany was caught trying to incite Mexico to join with them against America. Wilson and Congress had had enough, and in April 1917 war was declared.
In just over one year, the United States sent almost five million men to war in Europe. Of those, we lost 116,516 and over 200,000 were wounded but not mortally. When you factor in all military and civilian casualties during the course of the war there were 16 million deaths and 21 million injured. Just to put that into perspective, the total number of dead is equal to twice the modern population of New York City.
America’s entry into World War 1 is often seen as the catalyst to bringing the war to an end. The Allies and the Germans were tired. They had been fighting since 1914. Germany was fighting on multiple fronts and the surge of fresh troops from America overwhelmed them. In 1918, an Armistice was announced to take place at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – November 11 at 11 a.m.
Soldiers of the 353rd Infantry near a church at Stenay, Meuse in France, wait for the end of hostilities. This photo was taken at 10:58 a.m., on November 11, 1918, two minutes before the armistice ending World War I went into effect – image from the US Department of Veterans Affairs
The Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1918, bringing the Great War to an end.
In 1919 the first Armistice Day was proclaimed by Woodrow Wilson, and he stated “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” The day was intended to be a reflection on all that had been lost to restore peace in the world. Through the 1920s, these celebrations were carried out with great success and included the dedication of a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetary on November 11, 1921. By the end of the decade, Armistice Day had been proclaimed a state holiday in most states and was Federally recognized. By 1938, it was established as a holiday for Federal employees, and most states followed suit.
By 1954, the number of veterans in America had swelled to the hundreds of thousands due to World War II and the Korean War, and President Eisenhower passed legislation changing Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day so as to include all veterans of all wars.
There has been a little fiddling with the date of observance over the years, but tradition kept bringing it back to November 11th, regardless of what day of the week it fell.
The holiday is meant to be a time to recognize our great heros at home and work toward peace abroad. So, today, if you can find it in your heart, please thank a veteran for all they have done for our great country and the preservation of peace in the world.