At the 11th hour, on the 11th day of the 11th month…the guns fell silent along what was known then as the Western Front as the Allies and Germany observed the agreement to end this “War to End All Wars.” While fighting continued sporadically elsewhere, in what were fast becoming the former empires of Russia and the Ottoman-Turks, the rest of the world surveyed the cost of four years of war.
- 60 million Europeans put under arms
- 8 million dead, over 20 million wounded; a generation forever thinned and crippled across three continents;
- the world map forever altered
The industrial might and genius of a world gone mad and revealed in the mechanized mayhem of hitherto unknown locales – Marne (500,000 dead), Somme (where Britain lost over 57,000 killed in one day alone) and Ypres site of the appearance of the cruelest form of warfare – poisonous gas; the cauldron at Verdun which claimed a quarter of a million French and German dead alone; Gallipoli (almost 43,000 Allied dead) and Chateau-Thierry/Belleau Wood which saw the single bloodiest day in Marine Corps history — until Tarawa in 1943.
Machine guns, heavy artillery, submarine warfare, aerial attack and poisonous gas against flesh and blood — 19th Century tactics couched in medieval concepts of battlefield glory against the grim reality of war in the Industrial Age.
It was a slaughterhouse whose effluent would poison the world for ages afterwards. My grandfather (that’s his picture at the top), a first generation American of German extraction was sent “Over There” to fight cousins and kinsmen. I have a cherished set of sketches from his time in France – they are a study of French soldiers over time from 1914 through 1917, from exuberant youth to prematurely aged and bitterly tired maturity. He purchased them on his way back to his Illinois home from the war after November 11th. My wife’s maternal grandfather was not so lucky. He fell victim to a phosgene attack, leaving him permanently crippled and requiring daily assistance for the rest of his life. He lived to be 90 and was haunted every day by the horror of that attack.
These are the ones whom I remember every November 11th. The first wave in what became a series of world wars – the second wave one generation removed from the first, enfolding in its embrace my maternal grandfather who led Rangers in the assault on the cliffs at Normandy and my future father in the Pacific theater. And my wife’s father who answered the call on a frozen peninsula in northeast Asia. And don’t forget my godfather – who flew Skyhawks from Oriskany and Hancock during the toughest of times off another Asian country barely a decade later and who would serve as an inspiration for a young Midwestern lad. Yes, these and so many more who have and continue to serve – these I remember,
On November 12, 1919, President Wilson signed a declaration proclaiming that day as Armistice Day to recognize the veterans of this war – Congress amended it seven years later to change the day to the 11th of November and after WW II, and following advocacy that began with a shoe store owner in Emporia, Kansas, President Eisenhower signed the bill proclaiming hence forth that Veteran’s Day would honor veterans of all our nation’s conflicts on the 11th day of the 11th month henceforth.
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. – Lt.-Col. John McCrae
So at 1100 today – and subsequent November 11ths, let us pause to remember that all gave some and some gave all – and others are still giving, and let us give thanks, in solemn prayer for those and in gratitude to those still with us…