It seems to me that the manner in which we celebrate the national holiday known as “Veterans Day” has changed quite a bit through the years. I can recall when we celebrated November 11 as “Armistice Day” by everyone, including businesses, pausing for a bit at 11:00 a. m. to commemorate the date and time when the guns fell silent in 1918 ending what was known as “The War To End All Wars.”
The first commemoration of Armistice Day was by President Wilson who had been our wartime president during the conflict when in November 1919 he proclaimed November 11 to be a day “… filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory …”
Oh, yes, I can recall parades of veterans marching in their campaign hats and puttees. (For those of you who might not know what puttees were, they were a strip of cloth worn wound around the legs from the ankle to the knee as part of a military uniform in World War I. The campaign hat was a broad-brimmed felt hat with a high crown and a strap that could be used to hold the hat in place – kinda like what we now call a “Smokey the Bear” hat.) Anyway, the original concept was a celebration dedicated to the end of war and the promise of ongoing peace.
From today’s vantage point we likely don’t realize what changes to warfare what we now call World War I brought about. For the first time machine guns were in common use as was barbed wire. Poison gas was introduced with deadly effect.
The tank was invented to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare. And two more dimensions of warfare were added.
The submarine became the silent, unseen stalker of ships, both military and civilian – and revolutionized the concept of war on the oceans. In addition, aircraft became an integral part of warfare – for both reconnaissance and combat. Although fighter aircraft (ala “the Red Baron”) kinda stole the aerial show, huge lighter-than- ir rigid body airships known as Zeppelins were used extensively by the German military as bombers and scouts, killing over 500 people in bombing raids in Britain.
Yep, long range aerial warfare against targets far from the “front” had commenced.
This new type of warfare also had an effect on people. I recall my mother who lived in England during the war telling of how terrified they were of being bombed by the Zeppelins. My father-in-law served in France during the war but never talked about his experiences. My Sweetheart-for-Life had an uncle who was “gassed” with mustard gas and never fully recovered.
The term “shell-shocked” came into use to describe the result of men being continually in action with constant artillery bombardment, hand-to-hand combat and other horrors of warfare including aerial combat. It’s no wonder our country needed a holiday “… filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory …” and dedicated to the end of war and the promise of ongoing peace. That’s what Armistice Day was all about.
In 1938 Federal law made the eleventh day of November a legal holiday to be known as “Armistice Day” and it remained so until 1954 when the act was amended by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans” thus becoming a day to honor American veterans of all wars. Despite a “hiccup” between 1971 and 1978 in which an effort was made to celebrate the holiday as part of a three day weekend, Veterans Day continues to be observed on Nov. 11, regardless of what day of the week on which it falls.
Well, parades featuring puttees and campaign hats are long gone, but the nation continues to celebrate our veterans in a variety of ways. Eateries such as Applebees and Golden Corral offer free meals to veterans on Veterans Day and companies such as Handyman, Home Depot, and Lowes give veterans discounts every day – and there are many other instances of how individuals, businesses and governments show their respect for veterans.
You know, observing Veterans Day on November 11 preserves the historical significance of the date – which many have forgotten. In addition, however, the uniqueness of the holiday emphasizes the important purpose of Veterans Day which is a celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good – qualities that are fast becoming a rarity in today’s American culture. At least that’s how it seems to me.