Cat Flag 100th Veterans Day Special

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, World War I came to an end.

Or, rather, a general cease-fire was signed by Germany and the Allied powers who were fighting its forces on the infamous Western Front. Ending a war is a complicated matter, and as we have discussed on this blog before, it is usually quite hard to pin down an actual day, let alone time, that a war ends.

The first country to make peace was Russia, which signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers on March 3, 1918. This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution. Not only was Russia now too busy fighting itself to put up a fight against Germany and its allies, but the Bolsheviks that had just seized power had done so in part on a promise of peace to a war-weary people.

Next, Bulgaria, the smallest of the Central Powers, agreed to withdraw from the war on September 29. Then, on October 30, the Turkish Ottoman Empire signed an armistice with the Allies, having lost what little remained of their once-great empire to the Allies and Arab rebels. On November 3, Italy signed an armistice with Austria-Hungary, a country that had functionally ceased to exist by that point as it collapsed into a patchwork of new, squabbling nations and what little remained of the Austro-Hungarian Army disbanded. In Germany, revolution spilled onto the streets and the Kaiser was overthrown. Two days later, at about 5 a.m., the Germans signed the final armistice to end the fighting. The armistice was to take effect at 11 a.m., and for those last few hours of the war, fighting continued and 11,000 further people became casualties. Yet, when the clock struck eleven, the guns fell silent, and crowds around the world cheered that the bloodiest war in history thus far was over.

Except in Russia, where the Bolsheviks were still fighting their civil war against the anticommunist White Army. Or in Turkey, which rejected the peace terms the Allies imposed and fought another war against them that lasted until they achieved peace terms they would accept in 1923.

Indeed, even after the armistice was signed, Germany was still technically at war with the Allies until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and with the United States (which had rejected the treaty) until Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution in 1921. Like I said, ending a war is always complicated.

Even so, the day the guns fell silent on the Western Front meant the end of four years of brutal, futile, and suicidal trench warfare that cost more than four million people their lives. One can scarcely imagine the whole slew of emotions that would have overcome the survivors on that dramatic day. It is no wonder, then, that many countries around the world commemorate the day. Some countries call it Armistice Day, others Remembrance Day.

Here in the United States, president Woodrow Wilson declared that November 11, 1919, would be Armistice Day, in honor of those Americans who died during the Great War. In those days, the standard practice was to stop whatever you were doing at 11:00 on the dot and just stand in silence for a few minutes. There are still some places that continue this practice; I specifically remember doing this at one of the elementary schools I attended. However, these days it is more common for Americans to have a “moment of silence” on December 7 in honor of those who died in the Attack on Pearl Harbor, or September 11, in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Therein lies the problem with “the war to end all wars”, as it was dubbed by none other than H.G. Wells in 1914. This rallying cry to justify this conflict that numerous soldiers would die for proved to be nothing more than an elusive pipe dream. There was, after all, a Second World War, and there have been numerous wars ever since. In fact, in 1954 the United States changed both the name and meaning of Armistice Day to recognize this reality – now it’s called Veterans Day, and it honors all those Americans who have served in any war. In May, we have Memorial Day to honor those American servicemen who died in any war, though that day was also more specific at its inception, originally a way to honor those who died in the American Civil War.

The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, and the last veteran of World War I died in 2012. Humans are mortal beings, and it won’t be that long until we live in a world with no more living veterans of World War II. I am not the only person who is pondering these things on the 100th anniversary of the armistice of November 11. How do we remember the sacrifices and stories of those that fought in wars that are long past?

This brings me to, of all things, poppies.

Yes, the flower.

In 1915, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote a poem, In Flanders Fields, which was an instant smash hit upon its publication later that year. It was used during the war to drum up support for the war effort in the British Empire, and after the war the “remembrance poppy” became a popular symbol for the veterans who were returning home. The poem’s use of poppies as a symbol of those who died in battle somehow struck a chord with the public. It was an American, Moina Michael, who started the tradition of making hand-made poppy pins to give to WWI veterans as a token of gratitude, and the American Legion (which was started by WWI veterans) took the idea and ran with it. It soon came to be even more popular in the British Empire, and to this day many people in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand wear poppies on Remembrance Day. It is the official symbol of the Royal British Legion, a charity that supports British veterans. Some people even fly poppy-themed flags in honor of the war’s memory.

McCrae died in 1918, months before the war ended, and never saw the phenomenon that he started. It is humbling to think that someone so famous could become yet another war dead statistic. It makes me feel humble, a man who has never been on a battlefield, never risked my life for my country, never put anything on the line for my freedom.

It also makes me feel grateful to those brave souls who did serve, and that I have had the pleasure of knowing. Before I moved to my current home, my next-door neighbor was a WWII navy veteran, whose story you may remember from a video I made. My high school history teacher once brought in a former pilot from the famous Flying Tigers that fought in China during the war. I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard their stories, and I would encourage anyone who knows a veteran to ask them about their stories. I would also encourage everyone to thank those veterans for the sacrifices that they have given.

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.

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