Armistice Day – A Centenary Observance

The World War I memorial in Butte MT. In the background is a new aquatic complex and carousel in Stodden Park. According to a plaque, the memorial was dedicated in 1940, just a year before we were engulfed in another world war.

Today we may be celebrating or mourning, following the counting of ballots last night. Whether favorite candidates or issues won or lost, the sun came up this morning, if a bit later than yesterday. The hunting season is still on and we’re a step or two closer to winter.

This weekend we observe Veterans Day—twice. The official day will be on Sunday, which means the Veterans Day holiday will be on Monday.

This year, we might want to refer to Sunday as Armistice Day, as we observe the centenary of the end of the Great War, or World War I, after the horrors of the second world war eclipsed the carnage of the previous war.

While the war came to a close 100 years ago, on November 18, 1918, at the 11th hour of the 11th Day of the 11th month, we can look back at some of the mind-boggling statistics of the war.

From its start in August 1914, some 70 million people were mobilized into military service, 60 million of those from Europe.

An estimated 9 million combatants and 7 million non-combatants died as a direct result of the war. Near the end of the conflict the great flu epidemic swept around the world, in part because of large numbers of people crowded together in military facilities, troop ships and the like, leading to the death of between 50 and 100 million people.

The United States tried to stay out of the war, with President Woodrow Wilson saying that America was “too proud to fight.” Wilson campaigned for reelection in 1916, with a campaign slogan of “He kept us out of the war.”

In 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare, following a suspension of attacks on passenger ships after the sinking of the British liner Lusitania in 1915. In addition, news came out of the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German foreign minister invited Mexico to attack the U.S. and recover the territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Wilson called for a declaration of war on April 2, 1917, and Congress passed the declaration four days later.

It takes a long period to mobilize an army. Congress passed a Selective Service Act, drafting 2.8 million men, but it wasn’t until summer 1918 when U.S. troops began to arrive in force in Europe.

While American forces came late to the war, the infusion of fresh troops, backed by fresh money, turned the tide of war and in October many of Germany’s allies signed separate armistice agreements. Finally, at 5 a.m. on November 11, an armistice agreement was signed in a railroad carriage at Compiegne, France, with a cease-fire to take effect six hours later.

In the aftermath of the war, empires disappeared, including German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian. Royal dynasties, such as the Romanovs, Hohenzollenrns, Habsburgs and Ottomans, collapsed. The Communist Revolution displaced the Russian monarchy.

Poland and Finland emerged as independent countries. The Balkan countries of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia became Yugoslavia. Parts of the kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary became Czechoslovakia.

Sadly, the “War to end all wars” laid the basis for unrest and grudges that led, inevitably, to World War II, in 1939.

The fallout still continues, with the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequent ethnic warfare, in the 1990s, and the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. Iraq, assembled from tribal kingdoms of the old Ottoman Empire, became a battleground.

While Armistice Day was 100 years ago, there are reasons to keep memories alive. For example, in the spring of 1917, my father was a passenger on a ship from Norway to New York City. I’m here today because it wasn’t torpedoed. One of my first bosses, when I entered the work force in the 1950s, was a veteran of the Great War, as were family friends and community leaders of my youth. The last surviving veteran of the Great War, Florence Green, who served in the British Women’s RAF, died just six years ago at age 110.

The trumpets of distant wars are faint but still echo.

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