By Jeff Kazmierski – Copy Editor
On Nov. 11, 1918 at 11:00, the guns of World War I fell silent. This moment marked the end of the first great war of the 20th century. It wasn’t the longest, but it was one of the bloodiest and most brutal. At the time, its inhumanity was legendary. Millions of young men marched off to war; the casualties numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Entire cities were reduced to rubble as the armies of Europe beat each other to bloody ruin.
The veterans of that war faced unimaginable horrors in the trenches of France and Germany: poisonous gas, machinegun fire, the inevitable orders “Over the top” that meant certain death for hundreds in order to gain a few feet of ground; not to mention the mud, filth, rats, hunger and disease that were their constant companions.
Thousands never made it home. Those that did brought memories of that hell with them. Some came home bearing the physical and emotional scars of the war. Many found the return to civilian life very difficult. The country wanted to forget and move on, and men with missing limbs were an unpleasant reminder of the war. Unemployment and homelessness were pervasive problems for the recent veterans.
In 1919, one year after the war ended, former President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11 as Armistice Day, a day to recognize the sacrifice and service of the men who fought in that terrible war:
“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,” Wilson said in 1919, quoted from the Department of Federal Affairs website.
Seven years later in 1926, Congress formally recognized 1918 as the end of World War I and declared Armistice Day a national day of remembrance. In 1938, it was legally made a national holiday. Though it was originally intended to commemorate only those who served in WWI, the massive mobilization of troops for World War II and subsequent American action in Korea led President Eisenhower to make the first “Veterans’ Day Proclamation.” On Nov. 11, 1954, the holiday officially became Veterans’ Day and is now celebrated as a day to honor all veterans.
It hasn’t been an easy ride for veterans in the 20th century. Re-integration to civilian life after a war has never been easy. In 1932, a small army of 43,000 that included some 17,000 veterans with their families and supporters marched on Washington to demand payment for redemption of their service. Their case was sound, legally and morally; the law provided for payment of bonuses after wartime service. Many were homeless; most were unemployed. The Army was ordered to disperse them and it did so with bayonets, rifles and tanks.
Out of this tragedy came a great good – the G.I. Bill of Rights, what we now know as the G.I. Bill, was enacted after World War II. It paid college tuition for returning veterans, and it could be argued that it enabled the longest and most stable period of economic growth and prosperity in American history. Veterans returning from the war could look forward to new opportunities instead of unemployment and desperation. The legacy of the G.I. Bill continues to this day in the form of the Webb-Hagel Post-911 G.I. Bill, which is enabling thousands of veterans to reinvent their lives even in the midst of economic uncertainty.
Today, as in years past, we still set aside one day in November to honor and remember the sacrifices veterans have made and still make to preserve and protect us.
In Britain, they still call it Remembrance Day and honor it by wearing red poppies on their lapels in remembrance of the poppies that grew in the Dutch fields after the dead were buried. Remembrance Day is commemorated in the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae:
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.
Even though less than 1 percent of the American population can rightfully claim to be veterans, there’s not a single person alive who does not owe a debt of gratitude to these brave men and women.
This Thursday, take some time to thank a veteran. If you’re in the mood, throw him or her a snappy salute while you’re at it.
As a veteran, I can tell you they’ll appreciate it.