Today is Armistice Day. It’s still celebrated in one manner or the other around the world, mostly, unsurprisingly, by the countries of the Commonwealth of Nations, last vestiges of the British Empire that they are.
Dwight Eisenhower changed Armistice Day to Veteran’s Day in 1954, though it took decades to sort it out (On the 11th? On the Monday closest? What about the 27 states that already had Armistice Day in their holiday playbook?).
Eisenhower noted that The War to End All Wars hadn’t and Armistice Day had taken on a different meaning,
“… Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations …”
I used to think that we should still observe Armistice Day while reserving another day solely for veterans. I don’t anymore. I think World War I should be remembered and studied and taught, especially in the United States, certainly more than the whole “the U.S. mobilized, people sang Over There, and we ended the war. ”
Armistice Day should still get a curt nod, a few words, just to acknowledgement that it was one of history’s great ‘everything can change if we rise to the task’ moments and the collective we of the world blew it.
That said, Armistice Day, Veteran’s Day, Remembrance Day, Anzac Day, National Day of Independence, Volkstrauertag, whatever countries call their observation of the end of The Great War, everyone would do well to read one of the poems written in the trenches of the Western Front and at the very least, make the promise that Siegfried Sassoon demanded and never forget:
HAVE you forgotten yet? …
For the world’s events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heavens of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same — and War’s a bloody game. …
Have you forgotten yet? …
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets.
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-grey
Mask of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.