It started out as Armistice Day. On November 11, 1918 the Germans signed an agreement with allied powers in a rail car at Compiegne, France to stop four plus years of awful bloodshed. At 11 am, British time, on the 11th day of the 11th month the cease fire took effect. News papers everywhere west of Berlin claimed the war was over.
Actually it wasn't. Although hostilities ceased on the western front, battles still raged in the east and in parts of the Ottoman Empire and would continue to do so for a while.
The original Armistice Day ceremonies were conducted in London by King George V and the president of France. Traditionally two minutes of silence were observed at 11am. The first minute was for the war dead, the second was for their widows, children, and families.
It is easy to see why the western allies chose to recognize the moment. Right now there are 888,246 ceramic poppies floating in the moat surrounding the Tower of London. Each one of them stands for a British service person who died in the conflict. That number represents a little over 2% of the population of the United Kingdom at the time. According to Wikipedia, if you throw in eight British colonies in Africa, plus India, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Africa the empire's body count rises to 1,118,760.
Wikipedia also tells us France and 16 of its colonies ranging from Vietnam to Tunisia lost 1,397,800 military personnel while over four million of its troops were wounded.
In the east it was worse. It is estimated the Russians lost 2,254,369 army personnel. The figures for Serbia fluctuate wildly depending on the source, but the high end is 365,164 which, if correct, means in a little over four years Serbia lost 18.11% of its population.
The Italians signed a separate armistice with what was known as the central powers a week before November 11th. By then they had suffered approximately 651,000 killed in action.
In comparison 116,708 U.S service people lost their lives in the war, but then we were only in it for 18 months.
On the other side the Germans and five of their colonies lost over two million in the trenches, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, nearly one and a half million, the Ottoman Empire over 700,000 and the Bulgarians close to 100,000.
Pretty soon the name Armistice Day evolved into Remembrance Day throughout the British Commonwealth. It is a day where not only the dead of WWI are honored, but also the dead of all the wars. Unfortunately there are plenty of both. In the United States Armistice Day became Veterans Day and it is meant not so much to honor the war dead--for us that is Memorial Day--but anyone who has served in the armed forces of the nation.
Of course the armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed the following year, didn't accomplish anything other than giving Europe a 21 year break from the carnage. Instead of learning from the nightmare everybody just re-armed with more efficient weapons and--except for the French--came up with better tactics. By 1939, thanks to Herr Hitler, they were all back at it again. The only difference in round two, besides the lack of trenches running from one end of France to the other, was the added charm of a virulent strain of eugenics which was played out in the most gruesome sort of ways. Well that and the Italians who, thanks to Benito Mussolini, switched sides and managed to get their vast and beautiful peninsula utterly ravaged.
Yes, "The Great War" ended up being just a precursor to even more barbarity. And while America tried to slip back into the coziness of isolationism it couldn't avoid the second conflict either.
So as the French, Belgians, and British lay wreaths and play their versions of taps, we in America say thanks to everyone who joined, or was drafted into the armed forces. The huge majority of them have been honorable, many were brave, and a few, because the military is nothing more than a reflection of the national population, were complete assholes and criminals.
Sadly we'll never be able to stop having these Remembrance and Veterans Days because we're never going to stop conducting wars. The first recorded one was fought about 2,700 BC. The combatants were Sumer, located in Iraq and Elam, which is present day Iran. A couple of sources say there were probably earlier ones, but writing hadn't been invented yet, so we simply don't know about them. That is nearly five thousand years of almost constant human conflict somewhere on this blue ball.
Psychologists, historians, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians and a myriad of other academics have and will continue to try to explain this terrible human affliction. They'll compose scholarly papers which will delve into social, religious and ancient tribal traditions, not to mention some genetic memory hoo doo.
Being a tad simplistic I have another couple of terse reasons we go to war. First we're good at it. Second, somewhere deep down in that reptilian part of our brain, we really, really like it.
Think not? Just ask any eleven year old boy what he thought of that ultra violent war movie he watched a few moments earlier. Invariably he will tell you it is coolest thing he's ever seen.
That would be seven years, or so before he actually ends up sitting in a shallow hole in the sand and sees his best friend's head blown to smithereens.
It is only in that awful second he'll understand there isn't a thing cool about war and that reality is a bitch. .
Too bad we can't teach it to everyone before they run for political office, listen to a recruiter, or pick up a gun.
sic vita est