Armistice Day, 1918
Americans honors their veterans as nations recall the horrors of World War I
Sunday, Nov. 11, marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The guns fell silent in Europe at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. As word spread that the Great War was over, spontaneous celebrations broke out. New Yorkers awoke to sirens and factory whistles announcing war’s end. The British press reported that women in London “wore their hair down and gave out kisses generously.”
There had never been a conflict like it. An estimated 20 million or more died, military and civilians. It was supposed to be “the war to end all wars,” but the exuberance would not last.
The leaders of 32 countries met outside Paris in early 1919 and produced the Treaty of Versailles, setting forth the peace terms. Germany, defeated in the war and not given a seat at the table in Versailles, was forced to accept responsibility for starting the war, saw its military drastically reduced and was made to pay reparations to the Allies.
British prime minister David Lloyd George thought the treaty was too harsh and predicted: “We shall have to fight another war again in 25 years’ time.” It didn’t even take that long.
After falling behind in its payments, the German government began printing more money, setting off massive inflation. As Germans saw their purchasing power drop, nationalists in the country fanned resentment by promoting the idea that Germany was shouldering unfair blame for the war. Those forces coalesced into Adolph Hitler’s Nazi party, which led to another world war, one with far more casualties.
It’s history and it’s a warning, as nationalism rises again, here and around the world.
In 1954, in the aftermath of World War II and the Korean War, the United States changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, to honor all U.S. military personnel, whether they served in war or peace. We remember them all on this Veterans Day, but especially those who served in World War I.
The ceremonies are fittingly solemn now. Inspired by a famous poem, red poppies will be worn around the world, a symbol of the war. A Canadian doctor, Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote “In Flanders Fields” after seeing a young Canadian soldier killed by a German artillery shell.
The opening verse immortalized the poppy as a symbol of war remembrance:
President Trump will join French President Emmanuel Macron and some 70 other world leaders at a ceremony Sunday at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, marking the centenary. He’s also scheduled to visit several memorial sites dedicated to American service members.
The president will not attend a “peace forum” organized by Macron for Sunday, a sign of continuing tension between the two leaders.
Macron this week toured wartime battlefields in France and warned of ongoing threats to Europe, saying the continent needs its own army.
“We need to protect ourselves from China, from Russia and even the United States,” Macron told France’s Europe 1 radio station.
Other leaders at the peace forum will no doubt be trying to score political points at Trump’s expense, but the symbolism of the U.S. president standing with other countries to commemorate the end of the war should not be lost on the world.
Shared moments of silence and the placing of wreaths on grave sites are sobering reminders of the toll of war, and can be unifying symbols for nations willing to celebrate their shared sacrifices rather than focus on what keeps them apart.