Origins of Veteran’s Day

Veteran’s Day began in the World War 1 era as “Armistice Day”. It is still referred to by that term elsewhere in the world, and is also called “Remembrance Day” in some places. At the 11th hour, on the 11th day, of the 11th month in 1918 – Germany and the Allied nations agreed to a cessation of hostilities. It wasn’t the formal end of the war – those details would take months to work out, and tragically, thousands were lost in the final minutes ticking down to Armistice – but it marked the end of fighting. In much of the world – even today – many of us pause to remember in silence the millions upon millions killed, wounded and forever affected by World War I, “the war to end all wars.”

“Lest we forget…” The first Armistice Day observance was certainly the reflection of the desire of people to, as one government official said, “find some lasting expression of their feeling for those who gave their lives in the war. They want something done now while the memories of sacrifice are in the minds of all…”

Armistice was celebrated with one, two, or even three minutes of absolute silence. Factories quieted, and all came to a stand still. One participant later described it like this: “Silence, complete and arresting, closed upon the city – the moving, awe-inspiring silence of a great Cathedral where the smallest sound must seem a sacrilege…Only those who have felt it can understand the overmastering effect in action and reaction of a multitude moved suddenly to one thought and one purpose.”

The silent commemoration was so important that in the inter-war years, the word “Silence” was capitalized.

The first Armistice Day was observed in the United States in 1919. President Woodrow Wilson said this: “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.”

There were efforts shortly around the end of World War II to expand the day to provide an opportunity to reflect on the service of American veterans from all wars, and there was broad support for this. Congress formally expanded the day celebrating World War I veterans to include acknowledging all American veterans, by renaming the holiday “Veterans Day” in 1954. It is a national holiday.

But nearly a century after the sacrifice of World War 1 soldiers, we might find truth in what Plato wrote: ” Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

If Armistice Day – Veterans Day – is an “invented” tradition, certainly its intent is not, but is rather, one that rises from our hearts, and that echos down through generations that hear and know the stories that have been passed down, but who don’t have the same life experiences. And that is one reason that Veterans Day is so very, very important. And I quote:

“…it is not in mourning, but in greeting that we should salute them on that day. When we are divided it may serve to remind us of the greater things we hold in common. When we are gone it may help to bring home to those who come after us the meaning, the nobility and the unselfishness of the great sacrifice by which their freedom was assured.”