I did a little research to find when Armistice Day became Veterans Day. President Eisenhower signed a proclamation in 1954 officially changing the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
The first Armistice Day was celebrated on November 11th, 1919 in recognition of the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I on the 11th month, the 11th day, at the 11th hour in 1918. It became quiet across the World War I battlefields and trenches at that time as word passed along that the fighting was over and the “war to end all wars” was over.
In 1926 Congress passed a resolution for an annual observance of Armistice Day and it became a national holiday beginning in 1938. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, many of the adults in my life still used the name of Armistice Day for November 11th. Today, we seldom hear the term “Armistice Day” but it is worth remembering the history I am alluding to.
World War I began in August, 1914 and ended in November of 1918. Four years of fighting wrecked Europe and bankrupted many of the old world nations. The Russian Revolution erupted out of the destruction of war. Over nine million combatants were killed and over twenty-one million were wounded. Over 12 percent of the male population of Great Britain was a casualty. Here is a chilling statistic: over fifty-seven thousand of them in a single day’s fighting in the Battle of the Somme (this is the same number of names on our Vietnam Memorial Wall).
These numbers are staggering and then there is another marker here to remember. Out of the “war to end all wars” were planted the seeds for the rise of Hitler and World War II. All of this history is dark and is a huge history of human slaughter, so often civilians as well as combatants.
Armistice Day has a special significance for me as I have a great uncle, Grover C. Pirie that served in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and fought in some of the battles in 1918. He was attached to A Company, 64th Infantry, 7th Division and went to the front twice. In a letter sent home he described “going over the top” of the trench to “help capture machine gun nests.” He goes on to say, “I was in all the fighting at this front. The Germans occasionally sent over some artillery shells. I helped string barbed wire entanglements and went out in no man’s land many times. I had many experiences while on this front for about two months.” After this he writes he was transferred to the Headquarters Co. Uncle Grover goes on to write, “I was in Martincourt, France, about 35 kilometers from Nancy, when the Armistice was signed having been relieved from the front.” Uncle Grover was gassed in the fighting and survived but suffered from the effects the rest of his life.
My aunt saved Uncle Grover’s letters sent home and I have copies. It seems the mails during the war were often behind and Uncle Grover was sometimes surprised by several letters from home finding their way to him several months after having been written. I am sure the worry about his safety back home was also not diminished as his letters sent home were also held up for months. In his final letter sent home to my grandfather, he writes on April 13th, 1919 from some place in Germany where he was stationed that”…I am in good health and will soon be on my way home. I have been in lots of hardships and experiences. There is too much to write about in this letter. The boat I came over on, the Ajax, was hit and sunk on the way back. I forget the date that I landed in Harve, France. Today, I marched in a review and lots of the boys were presented with medals. This is a small town and there ain’t much excitement. I will soon be on my way to Port.”
I was never in the military and I never fought. I was lucky in this respect. Both my Dad and my Uncle Frederick fought in World War II, my Uncle Frederick being wounded in Italy.
I pray we can find the will and the sense to stop fighting wars and learn to solve our differences talking with each other. We all share a planet that is getting smaller and has some problems we all need to work together to try and solve.
I remember all of those that have served in our military and thank them for their service. Thank you, Uncle Grover, for you service, and some words that made their way back to Vermont describing your experiences in the “war to end all wars.”
It’s now a few minutes before 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month and I want to stop and remember all those that have served. Sometimes, a little bit of history can reach out to us from the past, and its personal.