Veterans Day began as Armistice Day

On Nov. 11, Americans will observe Veterans Day, honoring all veterans of the U.S. armed forces. Until 1954, Nov. 11 was known as Armistice Day: a commemoration of the cease-fire signed by Germany and the Allies at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, to end the fighting of the First World War. The armistice signaled a wave of relief after more than four crushing years of warfare, so it was no wonder that Allied nations chose to memorialize that date.

Interestingly, no one later commemorated the signing of the actual peace treaty that ended the war with Germany — the Treaty of Versailles. The bitterness surrounding Versailles seems to have poisoned that date, and few people remember June 28, 1919, much less honor it.

2014 is the centennial of the beginning of the Great War — its common name before anyone knew there would be a second one. And at this time in November 100 years ago, an armistice must have seemed very far away.

The conflict had begun in late July 1914 with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on its neighbor Serbia. A cascade of mobilizations and declarations of war followed: Germany joining Austria-Hungary, and Russia, France, and Britain entering on the side of Serbia. Others eventually would join as well, including the United States in April 1917.

Recently, historians have corrected the assumption that ordinary Europeans had pushed for war and welcomed it enthusiastically. Instead, most seem to have been shocked when their governments declared war. They accepted it because almost all believed their own war was a defensive one — and that the war would be short.

By November 1914, it had become perfectly clear that the war would not be short. In France and Belgium, failed flanking attempts by Germany on the one side and France and Britain on the other had created a 300-mile long entrenched front. Thousands of men died in the war’s first four months. France alone suffered 800,000 casualties. But all continued to fight, although the Western Front would not be moved more than 10 miles in either direction for the next three years. Rather than fighting a quick war, Europe already was descending into a total war that would reshape whole societies.

As we look back from Armistice Day in 2014 to the November of 100 years ago, it is sobering to think of the carnage that already had occurred, especially knowing that it would continue for four more years. Armistice Day this year reminds me of the ordinary people of 1914, both those in uniform and those at home, who found themselves in a war that they had not expected and that already had taken on a life of its own.

By Rebecca Matzke
Associate Professor of History


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