Tuesday, November 11, 2008
The 20th century’s Great War, heralded as “the War To End All Wars” but proved not to be so, is commemorated by its symbolic ending on Europe’s Western Front on Nov. 11, 1918 — Armistice Day.
Since 1954, the date has been celebrated as Veterans Day in the United States to honor America’s military veterans. In 1938, the year before World War II erupted in Europe, Armistice Day became a legal holiday and “a day dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
The Armistice Treaty, which became effective at 11 a.m. Paris time (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month) in 1918, was signed in a railway carriage in Compiegne Forest near Paris. It signaled the end of the Western Front’s hostilities between Germany and the Allies, principally the British Empire, France, Belgium and the United States.
The 1914-1918 war was staged mainly on Europe’s Eastern Front and Western Front between the Central Powers, including the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), and the Entente Powers (the Allies), including France, the British Empire, Russia, Belgium, Italy and the United States. America entered the war in 1917 to give relief to exhausted British, Canadian, Australian, French, Belgium and other Allied forces and toward ensuring victory for the Allies.
The war exacted more than 40 million casualties, including 20 million deaths — both military and civilian. Military deaths totaled almost 10 million: 5.7 million Allies deaths and 4 million Central Powers deaths. Civilian deaths, mostly due to famine and disease, were 3.7 million (Allies) and 5.2 million (Central Powers).
The United States suffered 116,708 military and 757 civilian deaths and counted 205,690 wounded.
The war was victory for the Allies. Germany was completely demilitarized, and German troops were withdrawn from Belgium, France and Alsace-Lorraine. The Paris Peace Conference and the Treaty of Versailles followed in 1919, when the United Nations had its beginning through its predecessor, the League of Nations, toward bringing lasting peace throughout the world. But the terms of the peace treaties were prophesied to deliver “a new century of war.”
Twenty years later, in 1939, Europe again was in embroiled war: World War II. The 1939-1945 global war claimed more than 60 million lives, mostly civilians.
Today in the United States, Veterans Day has supplanted Armistice Day since 1954. However, Armistice Day is an official holiday in France. In Belgium, it is hailed as “the day of peace in the Flanders Fields.” In Poland, Nov. 11 is Polish Independence Day. Armistice Day is termed Remembrance Day or Poppy Day to honor the war dead in the Commonwealth of Nations, including the Britain, Canada and Australia.
In writing of World War 1’s pervasive trench warfare, American historian Leon Wolff writes of Britain’s 1917 campaign in Belgium in his book “In Flanders Fields” that “titanic armies sat — squatted, as the armchair critics contemptuously put it — amid scenes of unique desolation. Everywhere near the battle zone where the trench system had finally congealed lay the debris of war — smashed, rusty rifles, empty haversacks, stricken and abandoned heavier equipment, here and there among the scrub a lonely grave adorned by single cross, as well as more formal cemeteries. Trees were nude stumps. Moon craters studded the landscape.” Wolff pondered that “the Allies and the Central Powers had contemplated each other balefully out of the ruins of the countryside and the wreckage of their respective war plans.”
Numbered among the most famous World War I poems is the memorable “In Flanders Fields,” which was penned by Canadian soldier-physician-poet Major John McCrae in the spring of 1915 during the tortuously bloody Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. McCrae, a surgeon who died in Francein 1918 at age 45, had found it “impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood,” according to a World War I historian-journalist.
“This poem was literally born of fire and blood during the hottest phase of the Second Battle of Ypres,” according to a Canadian commander-journalist, Edward Morrison. “My headquarters were in a trench on the top of the bank of the YpresCanal, and John (McCrae) had his dressing station in a hole dug in the foot of the bank.” Soldiers were “burying their dead whenever there was a lull. Thus the crosses, row on row, grew to a good-sized cemetery.”
By Ed Todd
Published: Tuesday, November 11, 2008 12:00 AM CST
Today is the first Veteran's Day from which I have personally benefitted. The US contingent here (Sinai) was allowed to sleep an extra ninety minutes, rather than the usual 0530 PT session.
This was followed by an hour in formation with contingents from on post, including Australia and New Zealand, to recognize the day, and lay wreaths. Only two fainters during this formation, which isn't too bad for that amount of time on pavement, and none from the US Contingent. If I had my way, every National Guard unit in the US would have to report in on November 11th, for formation at the local cememtary where veterans are laid to rest. At least it would draw attention somewhat more to what the day is about, rather than a rest day for government employees, the greater percentage of which have never spent a day in military service. Those that have, certainly do deserve their day off, at the least.
As an aside, we have a WWI/Armistice Day memorial in my hometown, seen above. It holds a special place in my heart, as my great-grandfather served in the infantry in Europe then. Our family has had at least one male in the military every generation since then. I'll be the last one in the line, as no one in the family has any interest in military service anymore.
The memorial statue is of interest to others across the country also; apparently copies are scattered across the country, most emanating from one studio in the '20s and '30s. In truth, it's a beautifully done piece, with classic attention to detail. More on the history of the statue, and a project to document various locations here and here.