One hundred years ago the guns and artillery in Europe suddenly went silent. It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month (Paris time), and an armistice had been signed with Germany only hours previously in a railroad car in France. There are probably no words to describe the quality of the silence when the last shell had been fired – it is said that there was no cheering or celebration at first, just awe and appreciation of the quiet.
Other allies of Germany had already stopped fighting, and had come to a separate peace or armistice before November. Armistice was agreed upon, not surrender, nor peace. Armistice was basically a cease fire. It would be months before a formal peace treaty, (Treaty of Versailles) was signed on June 28, 1919. The armistice gave space for the exhausted combatants to consider terms of peace when neither side could decisively end the mess. And they were exhausted. European countries were suffering the loss of millions of men – Russia alone had 1,700,000 military dead. No one could keep track of the civilian dead, though it is estimated at about 2.25 million. And the millions of wounded were overwhelming. About 1/3 of the military deaths were due to disease, including the Spanish flu which was rampaging in the latter part of 1918.
In Europe the commemoration of Armistice Day is more of a memorial than it is in the U.S., where we also have a specific Memorial Day. The paper poppies appear in England in November; I tend to see them more often in May around here. The poppies are reminders of John McRae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” memorializing the dead buried in Flanders. In the United States, November 11 was converted to Veterans Day after the Korean War, in order to honor all Veterans. It is a day for the living vets more than for the dead. My brother Michael has said it’s too bad more people don’t make a big thing of Veterans Day, but admits that around here May weather is more conducive to outdoor rites than that of November.
My grandfather and Uncle Mike were very aware of Armistice Day, and of silence at the 11th hour for a couple of minutes. Actually maybe everyone was. In the two-room school where I began my education, we stood by our desks at 11 a.m. (Vermont time!) on November 11, and were as silent as two or three dozen 5 to 9-year-olds could manage. I don’t remember that tradition continuing when we moved to Colchester, although Memorial Day was a big deal. Grampy had been stationed in Germany after the war ended – even 50 years later, you could tell he had wanted to come home right away. I don’t know when Uncle Mike returned – he had been gassed, though, and that affected his service (as well as the rest of his life). Still, all of his days he preserved a letter from the king he was handed the day he landed in England that thanked him for coming to the side of the British. He was still proud of it and his time making the world safe for democracy, as President Wilson put it.
As we get to the end of the week and Veterans Day, there are many things to think about. It doesn’t matter what happens in the elections – we are still Americans, and though democracy may be a rockier road than Wilson imagined, we are still in this together. Honor our veterans – they helped secure what we have here. Perfect or imperfect, they stood up for ideals we are still working on; perfect or imperfect, we have this day to salute them. Thanks, people. You made a difference.