Veteran's Day, November 11, is the anniversary of the signing of the Armistice in the Forest of Campiegne, France, by the Allies and the Germans in 1918, which officially ended World War I. The signing took place in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, and was said to end "the war to end all wars." (The United States had entered World War I on 6 April 1917, and on 4 October 1918 an appeal was made to President Woodrow Wilson by the German government for an armistice.)
This Armistice, which lasted one month and was renewed until the peace was signed, signified the end of World War I and the German surrender. This day, originally known as Armistice Day, was observed by Presidential Proclamation as a legal holiday in 1919.
In 1938 Congress passed a bill which stated each November 11 would be dedicated to world peace and celebrated as Armistice Day. However, after World War II, the day began to lose meaning. Since there were many other veterans to consider, veteran's groups decided to change November 11 to a day to honor all those who fought in American wars.
The first actual Veteran's Day observance was held in Emporia, Kansas on 11 November 1953. On 24 May 1954, Congress passed an act to change the name to Veteran's Day. This act was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on 1 June 1954. The day was officially set aside to pay tribute to all servicemen who fought in U.S. wars.
Generally the day is marked by ceremonies and speeches, and, at 11:00 in the morning, most Americans observe a moment of silence, remembering those who fought for peace. After the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, the emphasis on holiday activities has shifted. There are fewer military parades and ceremonies. Veterans gather at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. to place gifts and stand quiet vigil at the names of their friends and relatives who fell in the Vietnam War. Families who have lost sons and daughters in wars turn their thoughts more toward peace and the avoidance of future wars. Veterans of military service have organized support groups such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. On Veterans' Day (and Memorial Day as well), these groups raise funds for their charitable activities by selling paper poppies made by disabled veterans. This bright red wildflower became a symbol of World War I after a bloody battle in a field of poppies called Flanders Field in Belgium (see below).
A Brief Overview of World War I
Rather than reinvent the wheel, Skylighters recommends the following web sites to those eager to find out more about "The Great War." For an exhaustive study, visit WW I: Trenches on the Web An Internet History of The Great War. For a detailed chronology of major events, a World War One timeline is available at the web site of The Liberty Memorial Museum. Another thorough resource for WW I information is The Great War. For a quick overview, we offer the following animated representation of the key points of the conflict. (To restart the animation, click the "Reload" in your browser.)
WORLD WAR I AT A GLANCE: |
WW I plunged Europe into a four-year war fought along two fronts.
U.S.: Joined the Allies in 1917.
The Allies: France, Great Britain, and Russia were drawn into war after a series of complex treaties collapsed following the assassination of Austrian-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Bosnia, in 1914.
Central Powers: Austria-Hungary and Germany.
Eastern Front: Moved back and forth until the Bolshevik revolution (1917) in Russia ended their participation.
Western Front: A virtual stalemate for 3 1/2 years.
The Unknown Soldier
In 1921, an unknown World War I American soldier was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. This site, on a hillside overlooking the Potomac River and the city of Washington, D.C., became the focal point of reverence for America's veterans.
Similar ceremonies occurred earlier in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation's highest place of honor (in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe). These memorial gestures all took place on November 11, giving universal recognition to the celebrated ending of World War I fighting at 11 a.m., 11 November 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month). The day became known as "Armistice Day."
Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional resolution. It became a national holiday 12 years later by similar Congressional action. If the idealistic hope had been realized that World War I was "the War to end all Wars," November 11 might still be called Armistice Day. But only a few years after the holiday was proclaimed, war broke out in Europe. Sixteen and one-half million Americans took part. Four hundred seven thousand of them died in service, more than 292,000 in battle.
Realizing that peace was equally preserved by veterans of WW II and Korea, Congress was requested to make this day an occasion to honor those who have served America in all wars. In 1954 President Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veteran's Day.
On Memorial Day 1958, two more unidentified American war dead were brought from overseas and interred in the plaza beside the unknown soldier of World War I. One was killed in World War II, the other in the Korean War. In 1973, a law passed providing interment of an unknown American from the Vietnam War, but none was found for several years. In 1984, an unknown serviceman from that conflict was placed alongside the others. To honor these men, symbolic of all Americans who gave their lives in all wars, an Army honor guard, The 3rd U.S. Infantry (The Old Guard), keeps day and night vigil.
A law passed in 1968 changed the national commemoration of Veteran's Day to the fourth Monday in October. It soon became apparent, however, that November 11 was a date of historic significance to many Americans. Therefore, in 1978 Congress returned the observance to its traditional date.
The focal point for official, national ceremonies for Veteran's Day continues to be the memorial amphitheater built around the Tomb of the Unknowns. At 11 a.m. on November 11, a combined color guard representing all military services executes "Present Arms" at the tomb. The nation's tribute to its war dead is symbolized by the laying of a presidential wreath. The bugler plays "taps." The rest of the ceremony takes place in the amphitheater.
In Flanders Fields & The Significance of Poppies
John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" remains to this day one of the most memorable war poems ever written. It is a lasting legacy of the terrible battle in the Ypres salient in the Spring of 1915.
One of the most asked questions is: why poppies? The answer is simple: poppies only flower in rooted-up soil. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, and only when someone roots up the ground will they sprout. There was enough rooted-up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact, the whole front consisted of churned-up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.
McCrae's poem may be the most famous one of the Great War often only the first two verses are cited or printed. This is not just because of the lack of quality in the third verse, but also because this last verse speaks of an unending quarrel with the foe. And if one thing became clear during the Great War it was this: there was no quarrel between the soldiers (except maybe in the heat of a fight). The quarrel existed only in the minds of some stupid politicians and highranking officers (who mostly never experienced the horror of the battlefield).
Here is the story of how he wrote it and how the recent death of a dear friend moved him.
Although he had been a doctor for years and had served in the South African War, it was impossible to get used to the suffering, the screams, and the blood at Ypres, and Major John McCrae had seen and heard enough in his dressing station to last him a lifetime.
As a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade, Major McCrae, who had joined the McGill University faculty in 1900 after graduating from the University of Toronto, had spent seventeen days treating injured men Canadians, British, Indians, French, and Germans in the Ypres salient.
It had been an ordeal that he had hardly thought possible. McCrae later wrote of it:
"I wish I could embody on paper some of the varied sensations of that seventeen days ... Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done."One death particularly affected McCrae. A young friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa, had been killed by a shell burst on 2 May 1915. Lieutenant Helmer was buried later that day in the little cemetery outside McCrae's dressing station, and McCrae had performed the funeral ceremony in the absence of the chaplain.
The next day, sitting on the back of an ambulance parked near the dressing station beside the Yser Canal, just a few hundred yards north of Ypres, McCrae vented his anguish by composing a poem. The major was no stranger to writing, having authored several medical texts besides dabbling in poetry.
In the nearby cemetery, McCrae could see the wild poppies that sprang up in the ditches in that part of Europe, and he spent twenty minutes of precious rest time scribbling fifteen lines of verse in a notebook.
A young soldier watched him write it. Cyril Allinson, a twenty-two year old sergeant-major, was delivering mail that day when he spotted McCrae.
The major looked up as Allinson approached, then went on writing while the sergeant-major stood there quietly.
"His face was very tired but calm as we wrote," Allinson recalled. "He looked around from time to time, his eyes straying to Helmer's grave."
When McCrae finished five minutes later, he took his mail from Allinson and, without saying a word, handed his pad to the young NCO. Allinson was moved by what he read:
"The poem was exactly an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word 'blow' in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene."In fact, it was very nearly not published. Dissatisfied with it, McCrae tossed the poem away, but a fellow officer retrieved it and sent it to newspapers in England.
The Spectator, in London, rejected it, but Punch published it on 8 December 1915: