Reflections on the Origin of Veterans Day

by J. M. Pressley
First published: November 11, 2013

World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Nearly a century later, the losses are still almost impossible to fathom.

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns along the Western Front went silent. The weary opposing armies had negotiated an armistice to cease hostilities and conclude five years of brutal warfare that had left millions dead and millions more injured. World War I, the "war to end all wars," was effectively over. The following November, President Woodrow Wilson commemorated the occasion as Armistice Day, which would become a legal holiday in 1938 and amended to Veteran's Day in 1954 in honor of veterans of all conflicts.

Nearly a century later, it is still almost impossible to fathom the losses that were the impetus for that consecration. Even with America's late entry into the fray, more than 116,000 U.S. troops died, making it the third most deadly war in the nation's history. But this was not an American war. Europe bore the brunt of a staggering cost; efficiently industrialized warfare devastated every nation that fought.

The United Kingdom lost nearly 900,000 soldiers during the course of the war, almost 2% of its total population. France suffered even worse; nearly 1.4 million French troops—3.5% of its population—died in defending their country. Italy had another 651,000 military deaths, and more than 1.8 million Russian soldiers lost their lives before their country erupted in revolution. All totaled, 5.7 million Allied soldiers died between 1914 and 1918.

The Central Powers experienced equal decimation. Of roughly 4,000,000 military deaths, Germany accounted for more than half. The 2.05 million dead soldiers represented 3.2% of Germany's population. Austria-Hungary contributed another 1.1 million dead. And the Ottoman Empire collapsed after six centuries of existence by compounding the loss of more than 770,000 soldiers with 2.1 million civilian deaths as a side effect of the war.

There are a host of reasons for this unparalleled slaughter. Outdated tactics and newly mechanized warfare collided in the worst possible way. Barbed wire, artillery, and machine guns made advances across no-man's land tantamount to suicide. New military technologies such as tanks, submarines, and aircraft appeared during the war. Men donned masks to cope with chlorine and mustard gas attacks. War had never before been so coldly inhuman on such a massive scale. The overall casualty rate of each side was over 42% by the end of the war.

It's difficult to put this into a comprehensible perspective, but Americans can look back to the Civil War for a comparison. On July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg commenced. It remains the largest and bloodiest battle on North American soil. Combined Union and Confederate casualties in three days of fighting left approximately 46,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. On July 1, 1916, the British Expeditionary Force suffered more than 57,000 casualties—20% of their entire strength—on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

More incredibly, the Battle of the Somme carried on until November of 1916, ultimately costing both sides well over 1,000,000 casualties between them—nearly as many casualties as the combined total suffered over the entire four years of the Civil War. Or consider this sobering thought: France, Russia, and Germany each saw more soldiers die in World War I than the United States lost in 200 years of wars from the American Revolution through Vietnam.

In the United States, we rightfully honor our fallen veterans. Recent conflicts have reinforced the importance of remembering those who have served their country, especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. But 95 years after the armistice, this day should also stand as a grave testament to the plague that is war. America lost soldiers; Europe lost a generation. And in the end, the war that was supposed to end all wars instead merely sowed the seeds for another generation of fallen soldiers only 20 years later.

We must never forget the historical significance of November 11. Even as Americans pay tribute to our veterans, we should reflect on the end of the war that originated this holiday and the horrific losses of all nations, of which our soldiers were but a fraction. Only then can we truly be grateful for peace, wherever it may be found.

Sources

FirstWorldWar.com, The Great War (PBS), U.S. Veterans Administration, Wikipedia