Today, November 11 we celebrate Veterans Day. To many people, VD is merely a day off from work or a chance to spend time with family or friends. They do not stop to reflect on the significance of the holiday, its history, and the sacrifices endured by millions of people to make it all possible. Like so many things, we tend to take it for granted.
VD originated at the conclusion of WWI, which was the most devastating war up to that time. WWI lasted from 1914 to 1918. In those pre-WWII days, it was called “The Great War.” There were 37.5 million total casualties on both sides, including 8.5 million people killed. The countries with the largest number of casualties were Germany, Russia and France. The US’s casualties were relatively light, 116,000 killed and 323,000 total casualties, because it joined the war late (1917).
Most people know that the immediate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, by a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip. However, every war has underlying causes as well. The underlying causes of WWI had been building for many years. They were:
1. The proliferation of mutual defense treaties. All of the major European powers, Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary were bound by interlocking treaties. This insured that if one of these countries were to go to war all the others would be drawn in as well.
2. Imperialism. This was nothing new. Imperialism had been an issue since the 16th century. In the early 1900s it had risen to a new level. The European powers were all vying for pieces of Africa and Asia, primarily for their raw materials.
3. Militarism. The militaries in each of these countries were aggressive, bold and influential.
4. Nationalism. Various ethnic groups, notably the Slavs in Austria, wanted independence from the imperialist countries that controlled them.
Against this background, it is easy to see how a world war could break out. All that was needed was a spark, and the abovementioned assassination provided it. The principal antagonists were Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on one side and Great Britain, France, Russia and the US on the other, although the Russians were forced to withdraw in 1917 with the advent of the Russian Revolution.
After four years of fighting, from 1914 to 1918, the combatants were finally able to agree on an armistice. It took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918. Eventually, it was ratified by the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed June 25, 1919 at the Palace of Versailles. November 11 became known as Armistice Day. In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson made it official by proclamation. Armistice Day was officially changed to VD in 1954.
The “Father of Veterans Day” is a WWII veteran named Raymond Weeks. It was his idea to expand Armistice Day to include all veterans, not just those of WWI, and he became the driving force to effect this change. He petitioned General Dwight Eisenhower, and he led a national celebration every year from 1947 until his death in 1985. President Reagan honored him with the Presidential Citizenship Medal in 1982 at which time he was recognized officially as “The Father of VD.”
VD should not be confused with Memorial Day. VD celebrates the service of ALL military veterans living and dead, while Memorial Day celebrates only those who died in the service of their country.
VD is celebrated in many countries. Celebrations vary. In Canada the holiday is called Remembrance Day. In Great Britain the holiday is known as Remembrance Sunday, and it is celebrated on the second Sunday of November. In both countries as well as in many European countries, the occasion is marked by a moment of silence at 11:00 am. Also, in both Canada and Great Britain some people wear poppies in their lapels as a tribute. Red poppies became a symbol of WWI after they were featured in the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. If you are unfamiliar with the poem I urge you to google it and read it. I am not normally a fan of poetry, but I found it very moving.
In the US we enjoy parades and other celebrations around the country. Many restaurants and other businesses offer veterans free meals or discounts on various goods and services. Additionally, there is a special ceremony in Washington, DC which features the laying of a wreath at the “Tomb of the Unknowns” at Arlington National Cemetery.
So, today, as you enjoy the day take a few minutes to recognize and show respect for the veterans who sacrificed so much in order that the rest of us could enjoy the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted. Many of us do not realize how brutal and vicious war actually is, particularly when it comes down to hand-to-hand combat where it’s you vs. the other guy, and it’s literally kill or be killed. So, if you encounter a veteran, thank him or her for their service. It would mean a great to him or her to be so recognized.
Also, be cognizant of the inadequate medical services we provide our veterans, especially the significant delays in receiving medical care and other benefits. It is truly a national scandal that has received scant attention in the mainstream media and one that needs to be rectified asap. Let’s hope that President-elect Donald Trump follows through on his campaign promise to rectify the situation asap.