Thursday, November 11, 2021

Veterans Day Trivia and History

Today, November 11th, is Veterans Day; a day to honor and "thank" all the men and women who honorably served our country past and present.  However, it has not always been known as Veterans Day. Originally it was known as "Armistice Day"; the day the which officially brought World War I, or as it was known then, the "Great War" and "the war to end all wars" to an end. But that's not the whole story.

The German "Spring Offensive" of 1918 had recently been stalled following the Battle of Amiens, forcing the Germans back while Allied counter attacks in the Lowland nations of Belgium and Netherlands had ground to a halt, although there was still some small pockets of movement here and there. Germany still occupied territory in Belgium, Netherlands, and Northern France while the Allies had yet to cross into Germany. It appeared that after four long and bloody years, each side had come to an exhausted stalemate. Back home, each of the major  belligerent nations were facing economic collapse and civil unrest.  

Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II (who would resign and later abdicate on November 10th), on the advice of his ministers and leading generals, agreed that it was time to end the war.  On October 3, Prince Maximilian of Bavaria, who had replaced the Kaiser as head of state, instructed German diplomats to approach representatives of France, England, and the United States (which had just recently joined the war) about a ceasefire and returning the frontiers to their original pre-war boundaries as well as notifying President Wilson on October 5th of their acceptance of his "Fourteen Points" proposal. After a short deliberation, they agreed.

Thus, on November 11, 1918, representatives of France, Britain, and Germany met in a cramped railroad car belonging to France's Marshal Ferdinand Foch, located at the Forest of Compiegne outside of the town of Compiegne, which is about 37 mile north of Paris.   At 5:45 am the Armistice or cease fire agreement was signed, bringing the war to an effective end (the Armistice was not a surrender agreement as some allege). The Germans called for the cease fire to take effect immediately. Marshal Foch, speaking on behalf of the Entente (or Allies), adamantly refused. He insisted the hostilities would stop at exactly 11:00 am, which was about six hours later. Why?

Two reasons were given by Marshal Foch. First, he claimed that it would take six hours to alert front line troops and the media (Germany said they could alert all their front line units within the hour. They were less concerned about the media). Secondly, Marshal Foch thought that end of the greatest war in human history required a "poetic end". Therefore, Foch insisted that the war should end on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour. Such was his vain arrogance I suppose. 

While Marshal Foch wanted time to prepared to meet with the media while his subordinates alerted various commands, some 3000 more men would die needlessly, which not often found in the history books.  From the conclusion of the ceremony until it took effect six hours later, 3000 soldiers lost their lives to war which technically had come to an end. The majority of those sacrificed for Foch's "poetic end" were mostly Allied soldiers intent of gaining land which no longer held strategic value. Several hundred German died as well, caught off guard as they prepared to go home.

When it finally all over, 40 million military and civilians were dead and another 23 million combatants were wounded with the Spanish Flu already beginning to make its deadly presence felt. It would ultimately claim the lives of 500 million men, women, and children, or about 1/3 of the entire population of the planet.  

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed into law a bill which recognized November 11th as Armistice Day and those who served. On May 24, 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the bill which expanded Armistice Day to one recognizing all veterans of all wars. Thus, November 11th would henceforth be known as Veterans Day.


Armistice of 11 November 1918


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