November 2017

Remembering the Honorable Dead: The Tumultuous History of Armistice Day

Amidst controversies surrounding increasing veteran suicide rates, presidential conduct towards war widows, and the seemingly never-ending conflicts in the Middle East, it seems like the opportune moment to push aside the politics and to take time to reflect on the sacrifices members of the armed services and their families have made to protect the democratic practices and ideas we hold as key to our American identity.

by Lauren Jannette

11 am, November 11, 2014, somewhere in the French countryside.

While sitting on the train en route from Paris back to school in London, I found myself observing my fellow Eurostar passengers. For most of the trip they had been passing the time flipping pages of books and newspapers, watching videos, listening to music, and furiously typing messages on laptops and phones. However, at 11am all activity ceased. Our train, which previously had been speeding along at 186 mph, had come to a complete stop. The passengers likewise had stopped all activity, each observing the two minutes of silence which over the past 95 years had become synonymous with Armistice Day.

The tradition of the two minutes of silence and Armistice Day itself almost never happened. It wasn’t until November 7, 1919 that King George V, following the advice of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, proclaimed the two minutes of silence as part of the first Armistice Day.[1] In the United States, Woodrow Wilson marked the first anniversary of the Armistice with an address to his fellow countrymen, stating,  “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 and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.”[2] The sacrifices made on the fields of Europe now provided the United States with opportunity to partake in a new era of global peace.

By officially dedicating Armistice day to the cause of world peace, Congress shifted the focus of the day from those killed during the First World War to the cause of peace.

7723The following year, government officials in Britain and France saw the need to commemorate the sacrifices made on a grander, more official scale. Each held a state funeral for an unknown soldier, placing the remains in a central location to serve as a permanent public memorial for those lost in the war. The United States followed suit in 1921, reinterring the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. The same year saw the emergence of the red poppy flower, taken from the poem, In Flanders Field, by Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, as a symbol of remembrance for the fallen.

Every Armistice Day which followed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became the site for government leaders to pay their respects, often by laying a wreath of poppies or other types of flowers, and lead the nation in observing the two minutes of silence.

Tomb of Unknown Soldier, Armistice Day, 1924
Laying a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Armistice Day 1924. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

While the annual observance of Armistice Day was declared in 1919 in Britain and France, Congress, following the recommendation of President Coolidge, waited until 1926 to issue a proclamation calling for appropriate ceremonies to be observed annually. It wasn’t until 1938 that Congress approved an act which officially made November 11th a national holiday, noting that “it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”[4] By officially dedicating Armistice day to the cause of world peace, Congress shifted the focus of the day from those killed during the First World War to the cause of peace.[5]

Bow: Obama stands before the wreath before placing it on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington Naional Cemetery
Former President Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery, Veteran’s Day 2012. Courtesy of Daily Mail.

The outbreak of the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War forced American government officials to rebrand Armistice Day once again. A day committed to celebrating “perpetual peace” seemed out of touch with the reality of the international politics of the period. At the end of the Second World War in 1945, the day was expanded to include all veterans of all conflicts, not just those of the First World War. In 1954, the holiday was renamed Veteran’s Day. This name change permitted the American public to celebrate all members of the armed services, both living and dead. This set the holiday apart from Memorial Day, which was reserved for celebrating those who had died during an armed conflict.

https://utsalibrariestopshelf.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/l-3312-e.jpg
1946 Veteran’s Day Parade in San Antonio, Texas. Courtesy of University of Texas, San Antonio.

The second half of the 20th century was a tumultuous period for Armistice Day. In both the United States and Europe, the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima made the two minutes of silence a mechanical action, devoid of any true meaning or substance.[6] Anti-war politics of the 1960s created an atmosphere of hostility towards events which were seen to glorify war and the useless slaughter it demanded. The inherent narrative of sacrifice found in Armistice Day celebrations was now viewed as archaic and out-of-touch. Adding to this hostility in the United States, the Uniform Holidays Act of 1968 moved Veteran’s Day, along with Memorial and Labor Day, to a Monday, providing the American public with a 3-day weekend. Similar to current discussions surrounding Memorial Day, many felt the shift disassociated the holiday from its true meaning, making it a “leisure holiday” instead of a day of remembrance. Agreeing with these sentiments, President Ford moved the holiday back to November 11th in 1975.

In the United States, the proximity of Veteran’s Day to Election Day has led some to petition for the merging of the two holidays, as a way to generate higher voter turnouts.

The trend of half-hearted observance continued in Europe and the United States until the 1990s. As more and more veterans of the First World War began to pass, concentrated efforts by public groups began reviving the traditions of Armistice Day. These groups, particularly in Britain, worked to remove the association of Armistice Day with the glorification of war, and refocus the day on remembering the sacrifices made by members of the armed forces throughout history. Parades and other public ceremonies of remembrance were revived. The selling of poppy pins and other poppy memorabilia to raise funds for veterans organizations was reinforced as a key way to commemorate the sacrifices of members of the armed services. The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in 2014 saw massive displays, such as the field of ceramic poppies surrounding the Tower of London, devoted to remembering the sacrifice and suffering caused by the conflict.

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, hand-made ceramic poppies surround the Tower of London. Each poppy represents one British soldier killed during the war. Courtesy of The Guardian.

However, the revitalization of Armistice Day has not been without its controversies. In the United States, the proximity of Veteran’s Day to Election Day has led some to petition for the merging of the two holidays, as a way to generate higher voter turnouts. Those who support this idea state that merging the two holidays will allow voters to truly honor the sacrifices made by veterans of the armed forces by participating in the democratic process they have fought and died for. Opponents claim that merging the two holidays will shift the focus to political campaigns and away from the veterans themselves. In Britain, controversies over the politicization of Armistice Day events, particularly during the centenary anniversary period, remain a key component of Armistice Day events. Previous controversies have focused on proper ways to wear poppy pins, the use of the poppy as propaganda for the military, and the lack of reverence given to the poppy as a symbol of sacrifice. This year the fight centers around budget cuts to police departments and the resulting cancellation of traditional Poppy Day parades.

This year the United States celebrates the 100th anniversary of its entrance into the First World War. Amidst controversies surrounding increasing veteran suicide rates, presidential conduct towards war widows, and the seemingly never-ending conflicts in the Middle East, it seems like the opportune moment to push aside the politics and to take time to reflect on what Armistice Day truly commemorates: the sacrifices members of the armed services and their families have made to protect the democratic practices and ideas we hold as key to our American identity.

janette-image-5Lauren Jannette completed her BA at Kalamazoo College in International Area Studies and French, with her thesis examining medieval French Crusade literature. Her first MA, completed at Columbia University’s Paris campus, focused on the crisis of French masculinity in 1917 seen through the lens of the trail and execution of the spy Mata Hari. Her second MA at the University of Kent presented a comparative analysis of British and French textbook presentations of the First World War. She is currently researching the intellectual history of the Interwar pacifist movement in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom for her PhD dissertation at The George Washington University.

Notes

[1] Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994): 8.

[2] Supplement to the Messages and Papers of the Presidents: Covering the Second Term of Woodrow Wilson, March 4, 1917, to March 4, 1921 (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Literature, 1921): 8804.

[3] “The Story of the Poppy,” The Royal British Legion, October 27, 2017. http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/remembrance/how-we-remember/the-story-of-the-poppy.

[4] Chrissie Reilly, “History of Veterans Days,” U.S. Army, November 9. 2012, https://www.army.mil/article/90953/history_of_veterans_day.

[5] “History of Veterans Day,” U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, October 25, 2017, https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp.

[6] Adrian Gregory, The Silence of Memory: Armistice Day 1919-1946 (Oxford: Berg, 1994): 222.

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