By Chrissie Reilly, Staff Historian, U.S. Army CECOMNovember 9, 2012
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. (Nov. 9, 2012) -- World War I happened nearly a century ago in Europe. Frank Buckles, the last living American WWI Veteran, died last year at the age of 110. It was the sacrifice of he and of his fellow service members that inspired the holiday Americans are about to observe: Veterans Day.
Originally known as Armistice Day to honor the living veterans of the First World War, Veterans Day has transformed into a holiday inclusive of service members of all eras. Veterans Day is a national holiday of remembrance and recognition of all those who served regardless of branch or duty status, Reserve or active component.
Looking back on Veterans Day as Armistice Day is at once nostalgic as well as historically mindful. Historian Robert H. Ferrell of Indiana University Bloomington reminds readers that what was once a staple celebration represented by World War I era artifacts and culture was translated into a holiday that could span generations. In his work, "Oatmeal and Coffee: Memoirs of a Hoosier Soldier in World War I," Ferrell outlines those Great War Soldiers were a very different breed than their World War II counterparts. Doughboys, as World War I Soldiers were called, were not the same as the Yanks or G.I.s of World War II.
An armistice, or temporary cease fire, between the Allied Nations and Germany stopped the fighting of World War I on November 11, 1918. Known at the time as the Great War, the end of combat became effective on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The official end of the war would not come for another seven months, on June 28, 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was signed. A publication from 1918, America Magazine, marked the day as one of triumph and joy, even amongst those suffering from losses. A passage from this magazine read: "There would be time and enough in the future to grieve for the ravages was had wrought in their own lives, but on the day of the armistice all gave way to universal rejoicing, because mankind was once more free."
President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first "Armistice Day" on Nov. 11, 1919, to show solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service. Wilson declared "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." The original concept for the celebration was for the suspension of business for a two minute period beginning at 11 a.m., with the day also marked by parades and public meetings.
In 1920, France and the United Kingdom each held ceremonies honoring their unknown dead from the war. An "unknown soldier" of the Great War was buried in each nation's highest place of honor: in England, Westminster Abbey; in France, the Arc de Triomphe. This holiday is now known as Remembrance Day in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Belgium, and commemorates all who served.
In 1921, an unknown American Soldier was interred at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. Armistice Day officially received its name in America in 1926 through a Congressional Resolution (44 Stat. 1982). This proclamation read: "It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations."
CHANGES IN OBSERVANCE
In 1938, Congress declared Armistice Day a legal holiday (52 Stat. 351; 5 U. S. Code, Sec. 87a), to be held the 11th of November in each year. This was to be a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as "Armistice Day."
If World War I had indeed been "the war to end all wars," Nov. 11, might still be called Armistice Day. Hostilities across the Pacific escalated during the 1930s, battles erupted in Europe in 1939, and the world was once again overrun with war. The ideal of a lasting peace was laid to rest.
Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I, but World War II saw the greatest mobilization of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen in the Nation's history. Approximately 16 million Americans served in the Armed Forces during World War II.
Raymond Weeks of Birmingham, Ala., organized a Veterans Day parade for that city on Nov. 11, 1947, to honor all of America's Veterans for their loyal service. The First World War, unfortunately, was not the war to end all wars, and both World War II and the Korean War dramatically increased the number of American war veterans. Recognizing that Armistice Day was limited to a specific conflict and group of Soldiers, the name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954.
Later, U.S. Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day to honor all who have served in America's Armed Forces. June 1, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed legislation changing the name of the legal holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
MOVING THE OBSERVANCE
In the 1960s, federal legislators attempted to make Veteran's Day fall on a Monday, like Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Uniform Holiday Bill (Public Law 90-363 (82 Stat. 250)) was signed on June 28, 1968, to ensure three-day weekends for federal employees by celebrating four national holidays on Mondays: Washington's Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Columbus Day. The intention was to encourage travel, recreational and cultural activities, and stimulate the economy during the long weekends.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, however, many states did not agree with this decision. The U.S. Army Center of Military history reports that "forty-six states had either continued to commemorate November 11 or had reverted back to the original date based on popular sentiment."
Confusing and unpopular, the first Veterans Day under the new law was observed on October 25, 1971. It mattered to the citizens that Veterans Day was a specific remembrance, and not just a generic type of holiday. Sept. 20, 1975, President Gerald Ford signed a law which returned the annual observance of Veterans Day to its original date of Nov. 11, beginning in 1978.
COLLECTIVE MEMORY AND THE MODERN HOLIDAY
Just as personal memories evolve throughout the course of life, so to do things like memorials and holidays. What used to be recognized as a celebration of the end of "the war to end all wars," our modern consciousness sees it differently. It once commemorated a specific day and a group of people involved, and now is emblematic of service and sacrifice for all military members.
In Sarah E. Drake's article from 2002, "The Postwar Home Front: Memorializing Veterans," she wrote about how those service members from World War II and the Korean War actually witnessed this holiday's evolution firsthand. In 1958, unknown American service members from both of these conflicts were also interred at Arlington National Cemetery, which transformed the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to the Tomb of the Unknowns. The 1921 remembrance of a lone World War I Soldier would be forever changed as these other war dead are now honored there as well.
Historian Gabrielle Kalapos theorizes that the selection of Nov. 11 as a day for the cease fire "may simply be a coincidence" but this day had ancient historic meaning in the old Roman Julian calendar. In her book, The Origins of Modern Holidays, she posits that not only is fall the season for remembering and commemorating the deceased, but that holidays for this were already part of the European tradition long before World War I.
Celtic Samhain and the Germanic Day of the Dead were both celebrated Nov. 11, until the switch to the modern Gregorian calendar moved those days to Nov. 1. In addition, Martinmas, or St. Martin's Day, was celebrated on Nov. 11, once Christianity was established in Northern Europe. Named after St. Martin, a Roman soldier who longed for the life of a Christian monk, died on this date in 397 C.E. While an interesting theory, this notion outlines that honoring the dead was long part of the collective Western psyche long before the hostilities of World War I.
The joyous celebrations of those early Armistice Days should not be forgotten as Americans celebrate Veterans Day. The Revolutionary War hero Nathan Hale said he regretted that he had "but one life to lose for my country." This year, as in all years, it is a time to give thanks for those who have served, pay respect to those who have come home, and honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.