Friday, November 11, 2005

Veterans Day, Armistice Day

Yes, indeed, I am that old--old enough to remember when Veterans' Day was Armistice Day. The change occurred in 1954, when I was very small, in order to accommodate World War II. Since then the original name has largely fallen out of use--although it remains, like a vestigial organ, in the November 11th date of the holiday, which commemorates the day the WWI armistice was signed.

I'm also old enough--and had a teacher old enough--to have been forced to memorize that old chestnut "In Flanders Field" in fifth grade--although without being given any historical context for it, I think at the time I assumed it was about World War II, since as far as I knew that was the only real war.

You can find the story of the poem here . It was written by a Canadian doctor who served in the European theater (there is no separate URL for the discussion of the poem, but you should click on the "John McCrae┬┤s Poppies in Flander's Fields" link on the left sidebar). It's not much as poetry, but it was great as propaganda to encourage America's entry into the war.

The poem's first line "In Flanders fields the poppies blow" (and by the way, I don't mean to be picky here, but can anyone tell me why it's not "Flanders's fields" and "Veterans' Day?") introduces that famous flower that later became the symbol of Armistice--and later, Veterans--Day. Why the poppy?

Wild poppies flower when other plants in their direct neighbourhood are dead. Their seeds can lie on the ground for years and years, but only when there are no more competing flowers or shrubs in the vicinity (for instance when someone firmly roots up the ground), these seeds will sprout.

There was enough rooted up soil on the battlefield of the Western Front; in fact the whole front consisted of churned up soil. So in May 1915, when McCrae wrote his poem, around him bloodred poppies blossomed like no one had ever seen before.

But in this poem the poppy plays one more role. The poppy is known as a symbol of sleep. The last line We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields might point to this fact. Some kinds of poppies are used to derive opium from, from which morphine is made. Morphine is one of the strongest painkillers and was often used to put a wounded soldier to sleep. Sometimes medical doctors used it in a higher dose to put the incurable wounded out of their misery.

Now a day to honor those who have served in our wars, Veterans Day has an interesting history in its original Armistice Day incarnation. It was actually established as a day dedicated to world peace, back in the early post-WWI year of 1926, when it was still possible to believe that WWI had been the war fought to end all wars.

The original proclamation establishing Armistice Day as a holiday read as follows:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; and

Whereas the legislatures of twenty-seven of our States have already declared November 11 to be a legal holiday: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate (the House of Representatives concurring), that the President of the United States is requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the officials to display the flag of the United States on all Government buildings on November 11 and inviting the people of the United States to observe the day in schools and churches, or other suitable places, with appropriate ceremonies of friendly relations with all other peoples.

After World War II, of course, the hope that peaceful relations among nations would not be severed had long been extinguished. By the time I was a young child, a weary nation sought to honor those who had fought in all its wars and thus secure the peace that followed--even if was only a temporary one.

And isn't an armistice a strange (although understandable) sort of hybrid, after all; a decision to lay down arms without anything really having been resolved? Think about the recent wars that have ended through armistice: WWI, which segued almost inexorably into WWII; the 1948 war following the partition of Palestine; the Korean War; and the Gulf War.

So this Veterans/Armistice Day let's salute and honor those who have fought for our country. The hope that some day war will not be necessary is a laudable one--and those who fight wars hold it, too. But that day has not yet arrived--and, realistically but sadly, perhaps never will.


At 12:13 PM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Pancho said...

For Veterans everywhere and this one in particular....thank you for the comments.

I attended one of my more memorable Veterans Day events yesterday sponsored by the kids and teachers of Rusk Elementary, Midland Texas. A few photos here at Rusk Veterans Salute

At 1:45 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's not being picky to be accurate. Here are your answers.

Fields in Flanders are "Flanders fields" just as parks in Queens are "Queens parks." The "s" is part of the place name.

It's "Veterans Day" because we are celebrating veterans, not because they own it. The "s" is plural, not possessive.

At 1:46 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My "Queens parks" example might be clearer as parks in New York being "New York parks." No confusing "s" there.

At 2:05 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Terry A. Hoover said...

Ma'am, I have to take issue with it not being good poetry. Compared to what passes for poetry these days it is an outstanding piece.

For my money Alan Seeger's Rendevous With Death is a much better poem. And his story is better than McCrae's. He was an American in the Foreign Legion who joined specifically to fight in the war. In his last charge he stayed true to his pledge. He was shot, fell, and spent hours dying. His friends couldn't reach him and had to listen while he cried for his mother.

At 3:15 PM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

Some historians already consider WWI and WWII two phases of the same war.

At 4:58 PM, November 11, 2005, Anonymous Ruth H said...

This brings back some real memories. Back in 1954 as a Sr in high school my essay was on WWI and I illustrated it with "In Flanders Field," including my idea of what the field looked like and the poem hand written on the cover. I found it when my mother died 5 years ago, she had kept it all that time. It is one site I would like to see because of its significance.

At 9:52 PM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Holmes said...

I walked out of the coffee shop this morning, after reading some law scrolls, to see the Veterens Day parade troops and veterans preparing themselves for the parade. The image was moving, seeing the New Guard and Old Guard mixed together. The Old Guard's numbers were very thin, and it is sad to realize that the WWII generation is dying off rapidly.

Maybe our resident therapist could answer why I feel moved to tears at such sights these days. Is it the guilt of realizing I will never do as much for these people as they have done for me?

At 11:11 PM, November 11, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Thanks for remembering and honoring us on this day, our day. I loafed the whole day. I sat in the warm sun, remembering fallen buddies and enemies, a free man. Holmes - I would say it is not guilt you feel but rather profound gratitude.

At 12:01 AM, November 12, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

The WWII generation is dieing off, but so is the Baby Boomer generation. The cycle of renewal is necessary lest the previous generation sort of won't wanna let go of past glories.

I don't see it with sadness so much as inevitability.

At 6:20 PM, November 13, 2005, Blogger Tom Grey said...

The Pogues have a most fantastic version of Waltzing Matilda -- Australians caught in Galipoli (fine flick) in WW I.

We WILL have a world at "peace" -- no nation states fighting -- when we have a world without dictators, when every country is having free & fair elections.

There's been lots of progress in the last 250 years; I think China won't be quite the last, but when it goes democratic, it will be easier to push out all other dictators.

I guess 2050 for China... I hope sooner. Bush's success in Iraq may push it up to 2040.

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