At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, hostilities between Germany and the Allies ceased, bringing to a conclusion the fighting of World War I, the bloodiest and most destructive war the world had yet known. Although the formal treaty wasn’t signed for another seven months at Versailles, France, November 11 became the day connected with ushering in a new era of peace.
Of course, it wasn’t called World War I back then. It was referred to as “The Great War” and more optimistically described as “the war to end all wars.” All of that made sense, given the unprecedented destruction and carnage the war wrought. It’s only in hindsight that later generations would smile sadly as the sanguine misunderstanding of human nature and the optimism of the era quenched by World War II.
In November of 1919, one year after the ceasefire was signed, President Woodrow Wilson declared November 11 Armistice Day, saying:
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.
Celebrated annually to commemorate those who had fought in the Great War, the holiday was renamed after World War II and the Korean War to be called “Veterans Day” in order to recognize all those who had served in the armed forces.
Observance of the holiday has varied over the years. In 1968, Congress passed “The Uniform Holiday Bill” that guaranteed federal workers four Monday-holidays: Washington’s Birthday (later to become Presidents’ Day), Memorial Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day. This meant that all four became “floating” holidays, celebrated not on a particular day but on Mondays. As the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs describes,
It was thought that these extended weekends would encourage travel, recreational and cultural activities and stimulate greater industrial and commercial production. Many states did not agree with this decision and continued to celebrate the holidays on their original dates.
But because of the lack of agreement between the national government and so many state and local observances, the first Veterans Day under this law, which fell on October 25, 1971, was met with general confusion. In 1975, President Gerald R. Ford restored Veterans Day to November 11.
I don’t know this for sure, but it seems observance of Veterans Day has waned. Memorial Day, by contrast, which was started after the Civil War to honor those who had died while serving their country, has in recent years been more widely celebrated.
I wonder if we as a society have neglected Veterans Day? I read somewhere that when the Iraq war continued beyond the estimates of optimistic supporters of the conflict, planes bearing the bodies of U.S. servicemen were not met with the usual fanfare (that custom, thankfully, was later reversed.) Then, the Marine Corp. birthday is the day before – 10 November. Is it just me, or have we put 11 November on the back burner? Whatever the reason, however, it feels like we don’t focus on Veterans Day the way a previous generation did; at least in the United States.
Many other countries continue the observance of what is called “Remembrance Day” by the ever-present red poppies worn on jacket lapels, shirts, dresses, and coats of the citizens. The poppy became the symbol of Remembrance and Armistice Day around the world because of Canadian John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.” Repeating those lines today seemed like a fitting way to remember and give thanks for all those who have served their country, and to call to mind the great scourge that war everywhere is and to set ourselves once again to be peacemakers. I’ll also place a short video from The History Channel below that offers a 3 minute history of the day.
In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
in Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders fields.