Veterans Day: Honoring Those Who Served

Article excerpt

Veterans Day traces its roots back to World War I, when nearly five million Americans served in the U.S. military. Gen. John J. Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces, which arrived in Europe in June 1917, had evolved into a modern, combat-tested army by the end of the war. By October 1918, German field commanders, losing on the Western Front and facing another major Allied offensive, advised their leaders to sue for peace.

Near midnight on November 8, 1918, a German delegation in a convoy of cars flying white flags approached the French line seeking a cease-fire agreement. A train took them to a secret rendezvous in the forest of Compiègne, about 50 miles northeast of Paris. There another train sat on parallel tracks of a railway siding. It was serving as the headquarters of the Allied commander in chief, Gen. Ferdinand Foch. In the dining car set up as his office, Gen. Foch read the German diplomats the terms of the armistice they sought and gave Germany 72 hours to reject or accept them. Meanwhile the fighting continued.

At about 5:30 A.M. on November 11, 1918, the German representatives of the defeated Central Powers and those of the victorious Allies met again in Gen. Foch's railroad car and both signed the armistice, a temporary truce. Instructions went out from Compiègne to all Allied units: "Cease fire at 11 a.m. today." At exactly 11 a.m. on that 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, a bugle call to cease fire sounded. From Paris and London to Washington, D.C., and Sydney, Australia, people celebrated when they heard the news.

On the first anniversary of the signing of the armistice, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation commemorating Armistice Day, noting it should "be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory." Armistice Day was to be observed with parades, public meetings and a two-minute suspension of business beginning at 11 A.M.

Edward George Honey, an Australian soldier and journalist, is often credited with conceiving the idea of moments of silence to honor those who served in World War I. In May 1919, he wrote a letter to the London Evening News suggesting silent moments of national remembrance. A similar idea was forwarded to the United Kingdom's King George V, and on November 17, 1919, he proclaimed that at "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities ... so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead."

November 11 soon became a national holiday in many of the former Allied nations. In 1920, President Wilson named the Sunday nearest it Armistice Day Sunday and suggested services be held in pursuit of international peace. In 1921, the United States followed a custom established the previous year in England and France, where an unknown soldier was buried in each nation's highest place of honor-Westminster Abbey and the Arc de Triomphe. To ensure anonymity, an American unknown was exhumed from each of the four major cemeteries in which U.S. war dead were buried: Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel. Edward F. Younger, an infantry sergeant who had taken part in Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel, the Somme Offensive and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, selected the soldier who would represent the unknown soldier in Washington, D.C. The other three coffins were put aboard a truck and taken to Romagne Cemetery east of Paris, where they were buried. The coffin of the unknown bound for the United States was transported with great respect and ceremony by train, then ship and finally horsedrawn caisson to the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C.

Brig. Gen. Harry H. Bandholtz, commander of the Military District of Washington, was responsible for planning the ceremonies there. That Armistice Day was probably the most elaborate of any veterans celebration before or since. …