Evolution of a holiday


It seems to me that the upcoming holiday on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, (not Veteran’s Day as some may think) has an interesting past.

It started out as a celebration of an event and then evolved into an entirely different holiday that recognizes and honors a segment of our population. You see, my Sweetheart for Life and I are old enough to remember when Nov. 11 was known as Armistice Day. As school children we, along with everyone in the country, stood silently for two minutes at 11 a.m. on that day each year in remembrance of the end of what was known then as “The Great War” or “The War To End All Wars” but is now known as World War I.

The great guns of that conflict fell silent at 11 a.m. 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, when the armistice between the warring nations became effective. So why celebrate the ending of this particular war with a special national holiday?

Well, one reason might be found in the sheer number of casualties. According to Wikipedia, “The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was about 40 million: estimates range from around 15 to 22 million deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.” The sheer number of casualties was likely sufficient motive to commemorate the end to the slaughter.

But there’s more.

This war introduced new types of conflict and weaponry — such as poison gas. Chlorine, phosgene, and mustard gas were all used with deadly effect causing an estimated 91,000 deaths. In addition, survivors faced long-term hospitalization and other complications such as “shell shock” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A driving force to end war.

But there’s more.

Machine guns made their forceful debut — weapons with the capability of firing hundreds of rounds a minute. These were particularly deadly in the “trench warfare” in which miles and miles of mostly open trenches were dug and soldiers went “over the top” in the face of machine guns and barbed wire — another innovation in warfare. The trenches themselves, almost always knee deep in mud, were sources of diseases such as influenza, typhoid, and trench fever and bacteria from the bodies of men and animals lying in “no man’s land” between the trenches. Stalemated trench warfare gave rise to yet another military development — the tank which could penetrate enemy lines despite machine gun fire.

War in the air came to fruition with reconnaissance aircraft, bombers, and fighters soaring over the battlefield. Then, too, long-range bombing of cities was introduced. My mother, who lived in England as a teenager during the war, told us of how they feared the giant German Zeppelin lighter-than-air bombers that had the range to fly from Germany and drop bombs on English cities. Terror from the skies.

This combination of horrors of the war led President Wilson in November 1919 to proclaim that Nov. 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day. The United States Congress officially recognized Armistice Day by passing a concurrent resolution June 4, 1926. An act of the US Congress (52 Stat. 351; 5 U.S. Code, Sec. 87a), approved May 13, 1938, made the 11th of November in each year a legal holiday — “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as “Armistice Day.”

Armistice Day was primarily a day set aside to honor veterans of World War I with parades, meetings, and a brief moment when schools, businesses, and other activities gave pause to recognize the occasion. But then World War II changed all that. World War II had required the greatest mobilization of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen in the nation’s history so the 83rd Congress, at the urging of the veterans service organizations, amended the Act of 1938 by striking out the word “Armistice” and inserting in its place the word “Veterans.” With the approval of this legislation (Public Law 380) June 1, 1954, Nov. 11 became a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

And that’s how the celebration of an event became a legal holiday and then evolved into a day recognizing all veterans.

Well, this once popular holiday is slowly fading away as the share of the U.S. population with military experience is declining. According to a June 2, 2020 report by the US Census Bureau, only 7 percent of U.S. adults are veterans. Kind of makes a body wonder if Veterans Day might soon become only a footnote in our nation’s history.

At least that’s how it seems to me.


Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor, a regular contributing columnist and local area resident, may be contacted at [email protected].

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