One hundred and three years ago, on the 11th hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, the Armistice that effectively ended The Great War, often referred to as World War I, was signed. The agreement silenced the guns between the Allies and the Central Powers. The first Armistice Day was observed on November 19, 1919. It included a nationwide two minutes of silence as a mark of respect for those who died in the war and those who were left behind, followed by every bell in the nation ringing in simultaneous song.
President Woodrow Wilson wrote, “To us in America the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who die 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 council of nations.”
Armistice Day was made into a national holiday in 1938 by Congress; it was observed by annual proclamations in previous years. Congressional Act (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec, 87a) made November 11th in each year a legal holiday: “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated as Armistice Day.”
To understand the significance of the day it is useful to remind ourselves of the legacy of The Great War. It was the first truly global war. Thirty-two nations declared war between 1915 and 1918, mostly joining the Allies: Serbia, Russia, France, Britain, Italy, and the United States. They fought Germany, Austria Hungary, Bulgarian and the Ottoman Empire; together they were known as the Central Powers. It was the British Empire’s entry into the war that made this war truly global. Canada, Australia, India, New Zealand, and South Africa ended up earning their autonomy from the British Empire as their colonial forces made up a large percentage the Allied military machine.
The scale of loss and destruction is difficult to imagine one hundred years later. The numbers were staggering: more than 70 million people were mobilized in uniform, including 60 million Europeans. There were at least 15 million combatant deaths and another 13 million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war. Seven million soldiers were left disabled, 15 million unformed men were seriously injured. Another 8 million went missing.
Germany lost 15.1% of its active male population, Austria-Hungary lost 17.1%, and France lost 10.5%. 474,000 German civilians died from malnutrition and starvation due to food shortages in Germany alone. Additionally, resulting genocides and the global pandemic then known as the Spanish Flu, were responsible for killing at least another 39+ million people. More than 17+ million people died in India alone.
No other war has produced as significant of a change in world norms. The Central Powers collapsed; only Germany remained as a viable nation-state, and it was forced by Allied powers to accept responsibility for the war even though they neither started the war nor were conquered through invasion. Many Germans believed that their government had stabbed them in the back by accepting responsibility; Nazis later used this sentiment to appeal to German voters in their rise to power.
The Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire both collapsed. Poland was reestablished as a nation again, as were Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Turkey. Russia collapsed into a bloody civil war, deposed Czar Nicholas, and became the Soviet Union; Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia gained their independence from Russia in the process. The Ottoman Empire was broken up by the Allied powers into the countries that now make up the modern “Middle East,” including Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Greece, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Anatolia, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
The most lasting aspect of the war was much more human; we, as humans, lost an entire generation in just a few short years. The machines of war pulverized so many people to bits that there were more than 8,500,000 “unknown” or “missing” soldiers whose bodies were never identified, collected, and returned.
Millions of families did not have the body of their beloved or a grave to visit. Britain established the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior as a national shrine on November 11, 1920. An unidentifiable British soldier was recovered from France, escorted “home,” and buried with full military honors at Westminster Abbey. The United States, France, Russia, Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Italy are among the 70 countries that established similar memorials following the Armistice and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
Great Britain moved the holiday to the nearest Sunday to November 11 in 1939 so that the remembrance would not interfere with wartime production; it remains this way to present time. The name also changed to “Remembrance Day.” Poland celebrates November 11 as National Independence Day. “Armistice Day” remains a holiday in France and Belgium.
Congress amended the bill in 1954 replacing “Armistice” with “Veterans,” as a way of expanding Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans who participated in other conflicts, not just those who died in the Great War (WWI). The official national remembrance of those killed in action is Memorial Day, which predates The Great War. Today, we celebrate Veterans Day with the solemn reminder that it was once a day dedicated to peace, the remembrance of a lost generation, and hope in our common humanity.