Today is Veterans Day, once known as Armistice Day, sometimes known as Remembrance Day. And if you're not otherwise occupied at 11 a.m. this morning, you might want to take a moment to remember the war dead and then call up a living veteran and take him or her to lunch.
The original reason for designating a holiday on this date was to remember the War to End All Wars, aka World War I, which stopped after 1,561 days of fighting on Nov. 11, 1918.
At 5 a.m. that morning in a railroad car deep inside a French forest, an armistice agreement between the Allied forces and the Germans was signed.
But for reasons that could only be chalked up to some faceless commander's strong sense of symmetry, it was declared the cease-fire wouldn't become official for another six hours at 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month.
Consequently, 2,738 more men would lose their lives in the ensuing six hours, including 320 American soldiers.
The military writer Joseph E. Persico published a World War I history book three years ago called "11th Month, 11th Day, 11th Hour" to pay tribute to those 2,738 needless deaths, along with another 8,206 who were wounded, and to note that the casualties were a microcosm of a needless war.
"The reason I have written an account anchored to the last day of World War I is that the carnage that went on up to the final minute so perfectly captures the essential futility of the entire war," writes Persico in the book's introduction.
I found his book to be both a fascinating and disturbing account of a war fought to a large extent along a killing plain in western Europe no more than 85 miles wide stretching between Belgium and Switzerland. Details of the carnage in a war that started with cavalry horses, introduced chemical warfare and ended with dive bombers are staggering.
Before it was over, 55 million men had been mobilized into duty. Nine million of them died and another 30 million were wounded. One in every six, an average of 2,250 per day, perished along the tortuous mud of the trench line on the Western Front alone. Another 5,000 were wounded daily. At the end, 7 million soldiers limped home permanently maimed. In France, 1 million children found themselves fatherless as of 11/11/18.
America got off lightly, relatively speaking. We didn't enter the war until 1917, nearly three years after it started and about a year and a half before its end. Some 106,000 U.S. soldiers would lose their lives alongside another 204,000 wounded.
Persico points out any number of World War I warriors who would go on to play leading roles in its sequel. Adolf Hitler was a corporal in the German Army. Winston Churchill was a British colonel. George Patton and Douglas MacArthur fought for the American forces in France, as did Harry Truman, the future president who would authorize the atomic bombs that would finally put an end to World War II.
All these men came trudging home from the Western Front once the clock struck 11 a.m. on the 11th of November 1918.
It was supposed to be the last time, a solemn vow that gave rise both to the War to End All Wars moniker and to the holiday created to acknowledge its demise.
Some countries, such as England and Canada, chose to call it Remembrance Day. America called it Armistice Day. Every year, in the dozens of nations devastated by World War I, bells chimed, flags were lowered to half mast and heads were bowed at precisely 11 a.m.
That lasted for 21 years until Hitler started the next one.
After World War II killed another 400,000 Americans, and 25 million all told, one of its victorious veterans, Dwight Eisenhower, changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
"In order to expand the significance of that commemoration and that a grateful nation might pay appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars," the president stated.And neither he nor anyone else dared suggest there wouldn't be another one.
Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to [email protected] and faxes to 801-237-2527.