“Tomorrow is our day of conscience. For although it is a monument to victory, it is also a symbol of failure. Just as it honors the dead, so must it humble the living. Armistice Day is a constant reminder that we won a war and lost a peace…” General Omar Bradley November 10th 1948, Boston Massachusetts.
It was the “War to End All War” or so thought President Woodrow Wilson and other American idealists. However that war to end all wars birthed a series of wars which made the losses of the First World War fade into insignificance as wars of ideology replaced wars for the preservation of the state.
In the First World War there were over 22 million casualties including over 5 million dead of which over 116,000 were Americans. President Woodrow Wilson established what we know now as Veteran’s Day as Armistice Day in November 1919, a year after the guns went silent.
Wilson wrote: “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…”
That initial proclamation was followed nearly 40 years later by one of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower signed into law what we now know as Veteran’s Day in 1954. In a sense I wish we had two holidays, one for Veterans from all wars in general and this one which we should never forget. It seems that in combining them we have lost some of the sacredness of the original. As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.” I will remember all who served this weekend but I will not forget why we do so.
All that being said for many in the United States and Western Europe the experience of or even the thoughts of such a bloodletting is unimaginable. Yet to those of us who have gone to war and studied past wars the end result is not so distant. It is a part of our lives even today.
This weekend marks the 95th anniversary of the end in World War One. For the United States the cost in the short time that its forces went into action and the armistice it was costly, though not nearly as costly as it was for the nations of Europe. From the time United States forces went into action in 1917 116,516 Americans were killed, 204,002 wounded, and 4,500 missing; 7.1% of the force of 4,355,000 the nation mobilized for war. (PBS the Great War UNC TV http://www.pbs.org/greatwar/resources/casdeath_pop.html)
However our costs pale in comparison with the European nations who had for over four years bled themselves dry. If one wonders why Europeans seem to have so little desire for involvement in war one only needs to see how the concentrated killing of the First World War decimated the best and brightest of that generation. Out of nearly 8.5 million Frenchmen mobilized lost 1,357,000 killed, 4,266,000 wounded and 537,000 missing, 6,160,000 casualties or 73.3% of its forces. Other nations has similar casualty figures.
The human costs were horrifying. In all over over 65 million men served under arms in the war. Over 8.5 million were killed, over 21 million wounded, 7.75 million missing or prisoners or almost 37.5 million casualties. That total would be roughly equivalent to every citizen of the 30 largest American cities being killed, wounded or missing.
Much of Europe was devastated, mass numbers of refugees the dissolution of previously stable empires, civil wars, border conflicts between new states with deep seated ethnic hatreds, economic disasters and the rise of totalitarian regimes which spawned another even more costly world war and a 40 year cold war. The bitter results of the First World War are still felt today as conflicts in the Middle East in part fueled by the decisions of Britain and France at the end of the war rage on.
The epic war poem In Flanders Fields written by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrea symbolizes the cost of that war and the feelings of the warriors who endured its hell.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Yes there are always consequences to actions. This weekend as we remember what we now call Veteran’s Day, or Remembrance Day in Britain let us not forget that the genus of these holidays was the blood shed by so many in places like Verdun, Gallipoli, Caporetto, Passchendaele, the Marne, the Argonne, Tannenberg, Galicia and on Flanders Fields.
President John F Kennedy said: “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
In the hope of peace and an end to war.