Some Notes on Veterans Day

Tomorrow, November 11, is Veteran’s Day, the annual tribute to the veterans of our armed forces who have sacrificed in so many ways to protect our country and freedoms.

The holiday originally was Armistice Day, commemorating that 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month, November 11, 1918, when World War I, or the Great War, as it was called for years, finally limped to an exhausted end. While the war didn’t officially end until June 28, 1919 when the various governments signed the Treaty of Versailles in Paris, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation designating November 11, 1919 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day to honor “the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory…”

In 1926, Congress passed a resolution designating Armistice Day as a day “to be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

It was not until 1938 when a law was passed to designate the 11th of November as an official holiday. In 1954, a decade after an even more horrible war, World War II, and just after the Korean War, Congress amended the law to change Armistice Day to Veterans Day, a piece of legislation signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower, the five star general who commanded the allied forces in Europe to end the European part of that war.

For several years, Veterans Day was observed on the fourth Monday of October, following the 1968 legislation establishing a number of three-day weekends. When that law took effect in 1971 it was clear that not everybody agreed with the change. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed legislation to put Veterans Day back to November 11, beginning in 1978.

In most countries of the British Commonwealth, November 11 is observed as Remembrance Day, and British military units begin their observances with a bugle call, the Last Post, which usually signals day’s end. Similar to Taps, the Last Post is a part of military funerals in Commonwealth countries. Another tradition in the Commonwealth nations is to observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m.

Armistice or Remembrance Day is not a public holiday in the Republic of Ireland. In July Ireland observes a National Day of Commemoration for Irish men and women who died in past wars or in service with United Nations Peacekeeping Forces. Still, in Dublin there is the National War Memorial Gardens, a memorial dedicated to the memory of the 49,400 Irish soldiers serving in the British armed forces who lost their lives in the Great War. Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to November 11, is marked by ecumenical ceremonies at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Long time readers might recall that I’ve had a long-held interest in World War I. In recent years there have been a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, published about the conflict.

The most recent book is “Fall of Giants,” by Ken Follett, a novel and the first volume of a planned trilogy about the 20th Century. It’s a heavy book, almost 1,000 pages long, about people and events leading to the war, significant events during the war and, finally, the end and aftermath of that war. Follett is a best-selling author with a long list of novels. This planned trilogy will definitely be a major achievement in his long writing career. I just finished reading it and while that book may be hard to pick up, it’s even harder to put down.

The battle of the Somme, a multi-month battle, with over a million casualties, including over 300,000 deaths, on both sides of the conflict after repeated fruitless battles, probably represents, more than other battles, the tragedy and futility of trench warfare. A recent book is a non-fiction volume by Peter Hart, “The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front.” And, yes, the Somme is a significant event in the Follett novel, as well.

Next week I’ll get back to fall hunting, but let’s take time tomorrow to honor the legacy of our nation’s veterans.

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