Today is a day of remembrance that has its origins at the conclusion of the Great War. On November 11, 1918 an Armistice was signed that ended the war on the western front between the allies and Imperial Germany. Though peace would formally come the following summer with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the Armistice meant that, for the time being, the killing would stop.
For some, the Armistice signaled the end. British officer Hugh Peirs began a letter to his father plainly by writing ‘so that’s that’. The war was over and his life was spared. Others were less certain of what the day meant, but as the weeks went on, it became clear that this pause in the fighting really was peace, and that their home nations were forever altered by the war.
For Germany, peace meant defeat. In November 1918, the Germany Army was losing ground by the day and surrendering in droves. The Kaiser had abdicated, the government was in crisis, and the nation was on the verge of revolution. The once ambitious German Empire was left to the mercy of the allies who were not very inclined to be merciful to the nation whose aggression they believed caused the slaughter and suffering. For the French and Belgian nations, the war’s ending meant that the invader was finally repulsed and that rebuilding and healing of their nations could begin. For so many in the British Empire, the war’s ending meant homecoming from service abroad and with it the hope of a new peaceful, perhaps more democratic, age.
For Americans, the Armistice signified a brief but important sense of triumph that resulted from our first great international foray abroad, albeit, one that was costly in lives however short its duration. The United States lost 53,000 men in less than six months of combat. This number is over six times more than what our nation lost winning independence from Britain and more than the number killed in the two decades of our involvement in Vietnam. Though short, American intervention in the Great War was bloody and would have gotten even dearer in the cost of lives and treasure had the Armistice not been signed and the war carried over into 1919.
The Armistice clearly meant something to millions of the war generation who felt relief at its signing. With the turn of our now not-so-new century came the death of the last few veterans of this war and with them went our direct connection to the Armistice, the meaning of peace for the men who served in trenches, the women at ambulance depots, canteens, or hospitals, and their families who were anxious at home hoping that their sons, daughters, siblings, or spouses would return from service alive.
Despite the sacrifice of the war generation, in American history the story of the Great War’s ending does not have the same significance that it does in Europe. The importance of the specific day, 11-11-18, has been diminished because the war did not end all wars, its memory forever shadowed by an even greater world war in which our nation took a more significant role. As an inclusive tribute to WWII veterans, Armistice Day was officially renamed to Veterans Day in 1954 to formally and fittingly honor veterans of all wars. Names are important and in changing the name, the emphasis fell from the first war to the second, the original meaning of the day altered to fit new generations of Americans who served and sacrificed.
Today we commemorate veterans in our present day and remember those who came before. As we do so, pause for a moment and consider the men and women who suffered and sacrificed in the Great War, for whom 11-11 had special significance, and whose noble legacy we have inherited: hope for a more peaceful world.
Interested in learning more about the Great War? Check out JackPeirs.org, a digital humanities project featuring the letters of British officer Jack Peirs posted a year to the day they were sent and accompanied by annotations and commentary by Dr. Isherwood. The website is a joint project of the Civil War Institute and Special Collections at Gettysburg College.