A war that changed the world forever

At 11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the two sides in World War I – the Western Allies and Germany – signed an armistice to end the fighting in “the war to end all wars.”

It was extended monthly until the war actually ended with the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in June 1919.

For years, most of the Western world celebrated Armistice Day on Nov. 11 with parades, remembrances and a moment of silence at 11 a.m. President Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed it a legal holiday in 1938. Canada calls it Remembrance Day.

World War I didn’t end all wars, of course, nor did it “make the world safe for democracy,” as was proclaimed at the time. Once called “The Great War,” it is now thought of as just another chapter of history and barely mentioned in school classes. Too much has happened in the last 100 years.

After the horrific costs of World War II and Korea, veterans organizations petitioned Congress to change the name to Veterans Day, to honor all veterans of all wars, since the 1918 armistice no longer had any real meaning. There had been too many conflicts since then.

The name change was made in 1954. Veterans Day was originally included under the Uniform Holiday Act of 1968, which created three-day weekends for many holidays, but too many people – including veterans organizations – noted the historical and cultural aspects of the armistice and in 1975, President Gerald Ford signed legislation returning the commemoration to Nov. 11, effective in 1978.

We remember the music of World War I, “Over There,” “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” but we tend to forget the war itself, and we shouldn’t.

World War I ended the so-called “Gilded Age,” and changed the way we see our country’s place in international relationships, how we fight wars, even how we live with the advance of technology. It was literally the end of an era.

The war is sometimes called a family squabble, since three of the world leaders – King George V of England, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and Czar Nicholas II of Russia – were cousins, all descendants of Queen Victoria. For better or worse, two of those thrones are now empty, and Europe totally changed.

Historians now know that the harsh and punitive conditions imposed on Germany, especially by France, caused a great deal of resentment and set the stage for World War II.

Author Richard Rubin was recently at the Wilton Publc Library to talk about his book, “The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War.” The book is a collection of interviews with the last veterans of that war, which he began to collect in 2003. The youngest veteran he found was age 103.

Prior to that research, he said, “All I knew about World War I, I learned from Snoopy, and most of that was wrong.”

It’s a fascinating and intimate look at how the war affected these men.

For a carefully researched and well-written background of the war, read Barbara Tuchman’s “The Guns of August,” which details the first month of the war in 1914.

Preparations for the war began in June 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Bosnia, but conditions in Europe had been deteriorating for years.

We didn’t officially enter the war until 1918, but many young men went to Canada and enlisted. Our entry and our thousands of fresh troops ended the conflict.

Next year, 2014, marks the beginning of the centennial of World War I. I don’t know what, if any, events are planned, but we should all stop and give a thought to the war that changed the world forever, even if we no longer recognize World War I as the beginning of those changes.

Lyndeborough’s Lafayette Artillery Company were held its remembrance at 11 a.m. Monday at Town Hall in Lyndeborough Center with appropriate ceremonies. Two veterans and a service member fired the cannon.

Jessie Salisbury can be reached at 654-9704 or
jessies@tellink.net.