The Armistice at 100: looking back on the day that ended the Great War
At 3 a.m. Mountain Time Sunday morning the world passed through a moment almost unimaginable in its magnitude and yet for many it was of little note.
It was at that precise moment, 100 years before, when the guns in Europe finally, after four long years of unspeakable brutality, fell silent. It was the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month of 1918 and as the second hand clicked from 59 seconds to 0 it marked the end of what F. Scott Fitzgearld once called “that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War.”
Somewhere around 20 million human beings died as a direct result of World War I. The mangled and savaged bodies of so many young men were left unrecognizable by its terrifying artillery bombardments that mass tombs, called ossuaries, were established to hold their remains in places of honor.
The immense Douaumont Ossuary, located on the bloody fields of Verdun, holds the bones of at least 130,000 whose families never knew their final resting place. Our own Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington was created for one such young American who fell in France, nameless but not forgotten.
The number of dead in World War I might be more shocking to us today if not for the unimaginable figures produced by World War II, which is estimated to have doubled or tripled the numbers from World War I. It might also be more shocking to us if not for a strange quirk of human psychology, best expressed by Joseph Stalin.
“The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic.”
When the Armistice went into effect on Nov. 11 in 1918 it became a moment of somber celebration for the nations engulfed in the conflagration, with the obvious exception of Germany. The very next year, in 1919, the first official Armistice Day events were held. In 1954 Armistice Day in the US was renamed Veterans Day.
As our annual Veterans Day events approach I encourage all our readers to thank our local veterans for their service. But in light of the centennial of Armistice Day I also implore you to dwell for a moment on the nature of war itself, its utility and futility, its pieties and hypocrisies, the way it shapes new worlds and destroys the old, for better or worse.
As we look back on the final moment that ended the Great War I turn to the words of one who lived through it. Someone whose life, like so many others, was forever imprinted with the ethereal scars of a thing whose immensity is impossible to truly convey.
In the words of Vera Brittain.
“I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone. Not one remained to share with me the heights and the depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries. The war was over. A new age was beginning. But the dead were dead, and would never return.”
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