Evolution of Veterans Day Holiday
Least We Forget - A Short History of Veterans Day
Veteran's Day is a day set aside to honor the veterans of America's wars. It was originally known as Armistice Day to commemorate the official ending of hostilities in World War I - which occurred at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918.
The next year, 1919, following a call by many to commemorate the first anniversary of the end of the war, President Wilson issued an Armistice Day proclamation. This first observance was not a holiday or even a call for a holiday but, rather a call for everyone to suspend business and pause for two minutes of reflection at 11 a.m. in remembrance of those who had fought and served.
In some cities there were also parades and gatherings to honor the veterans and the anniversary of the ending of the war.
In Great Britain, King George V also issued a proclamation stating All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead. This was the start of annual Armistice Day observances in the UK and Commonwealth nations like Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
An Unknown Soldier is Selected and Brought Home
On November 12, 1919 the government of France decided to select from among its unknown dead, one soldier to be honored as the unknown soldier of France and set the following November 11th (1920) as the date for the reburial and monument in the Pantheon in Paris. However, a fierce letter writing campaign during the year resulted in the designated resting place being changed to the Arc de Triomphe.
Meanwhile, in England, the idea of selecting a representative soldier from among Britain's unknown soldiers, resting in military cemeteries in France, to represent the British dead of that war was taken up by a former military chaplain who had served at the Front during the war, the Reverend David Railton (1884-1955).
n November of 1920 the French disinterred the coffins of eight unknown soldiers and moved them to the Citadel of Verdun while the British disinterred four or six (accounts differ) coffins from randomly chosen graves in four of the major battle areas (the Somme, Ypres, Arras and Aisne) and brought them to a chapel at St. Pol in northern France.
On November 7, 1920 the commander of the British troops in that part of France, Brigadier General Wyatt selected one of the bodies in the chapel to be sent to England while the rest were reburied. Three days later, on November 10th a young French soldier by the name of Auguste Thien was recruited at the last minute to replace another soldier who had taken ill and was given the task of selecting one of the eight unknowns at the Citadel in Verdun to be France's unknown soldier.
The French plan had called for a young private who had seen action in the war to be the one to make the selection of the unknown, but that proved difficult because most of those who had fought had already been discharged. However Thien had been called up toward the end of the war and was still in service. On November 11, 1920, amid much ceremony the two unknowns were laid to rest - the British in Westminster Abbey and the French in the Pantheon in Paris (his remains were later moved to the present location under the Arch de Triomphe.
Honor Guard at Tomb of Unknown Soldier
America Selects One of Her Unknown Soldiers
Following the example of England and France, the U.S. Congress on March 4, 1921 passed a resolution calling for the selection of an American Unknown Soldier from the war. According to the resolution the remains were to be selected and moved from France to Arlington National Cemetery on November 11, 1921.
As with the French and British, the Americans disinterred the coffins of four American unknown dead from American military cemeteries at Belleau Wood, Thiaucourt, Romagne, and Bony. Six American soldiers stationed in Germany as part of the U.S. Army of occupation were selected to act as pallbearers and, from these six, Sergeant Edward F. Younger of the 59th Infantry Division was selected to make the choice of which of the four unknowns were to be removed to Arlington National Cemetery.
The chosen remains were put aboard the cruiser USS Olympia and brought home to the U.S. Arriving on November 9, 1921, coffin lay in state in the U.S. Capitol for three days before being removed to Arlington National Cemetery where a ceremony was held and the casket lowered into the tomb at 11 a.m.
At President Harding's request, all flags were flown at half-mast all day on that third anniversary of the end of the war.
Eglise de Bnquenay, France 1918 - Photo taken by my Great Uncle Walt during World War I
France Makes November 11th a Legal Holiday
The following year on October 22, 1922 the French Parliament passed a law declaring that henceforth November 11th would be a national holiday.
People in the nations affected by World War I continued to observe Armistice Day.
In some nations, such as France, Great Britain, Canada and other Commonwealth nations, the day was observed officially as a legal holiday.
It Wasn't Until 1938 That November 11th Became a National Holiday in the U.S.
Despite the day becoming a legal holiday in other nations, the U.S. continued to observe November 11th as a day to remember her dead, but not as an official holiday.
Things changed in 1927 when the U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling upon President Coolidge to issue a proclamation calling for the flag to be displayed on all government buildings on November 11th and for schools and churches to pause and remember those who had so valiantly served in the war.
In 1931 the Canadian Parliament moved to make November 11th the date for Armistice Day (while the holiday had been observed since 1919 the date had been on days other than November 11th) and to change the name from Armistice Day to Remembrance Day in order to more precisely focus on remembering those who gave their lives. This change also made it easier, two decades later, to include those who gave their lives in World War II and subsequent wars.
It wasn't until 1938 that the U.S. Congress passed a law making Armistice Day a Federal holiday saying it "shall be dedicated to the cause of world peace and ...hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day."
Veterans' Graves at Arlington National Cemetery
Two More Wars Result in More Military Dead to Remember
Congress may have intended the day to "be dedicated to the cause of world peace" but, a year later, World War II began in Europe and new generation of young men again headed to Europe and the Far East to do battle.
Following World War II and Korea, Armistice Day continued to be celebrated in memory of the fallen in World War I. But now we had thousands of additional soldiers who had given their lives in World War II and Korea and people felt that they should also be remembered as well.
Without waiting for officialdom to act, the people of Emporia, Kansas on November 11, 1953 took it upon themselves to observe that date as Veterans Day in which they honored the fallen of all of America's wars with emphasis on family and friends who had fallen in the wars of the twentieth century.
Canada Remembers Her World War I Veterans
Name Changed to Veterans Day With Focus on all Veterans
This moved Congress to act and on May 24, 1954 a law was passed changing the name of the day to Veterans Day. In signing the bill into law President Eisenhower, himself a veteran of both World War I and World War II, called upon Americans to use the day to remember all those who had fought to preserve our freedom.
In 1968 Congress responded to a rising demand for 3 day weekends by passing a law making Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Memorial Day and Washington's Birthday floating holidays falling on a Monday.
However, like the Fourth of July (which Congress elected not to tamper with) Veterans Day was so closely tied to the November 11th date that considerable protest followed its change to a Monday holiday. In 1975 Congress passed and President Ford signed into law a bill calling for Veterans Day to return to the November 11th date starting in 1978.
World War II Memorial in Washington, DC
In U.S. Veterans Day Honors all Military Veterans While Memorial Day Honors all Who Have Given their Lives Defending Us
Like America, other nations have expanded Armistice Day to honor the dead from other 20th Century wars as well as those from World War I. However, in America we have expanded the day beyond honoring just those who died in these wars to honoring all who have served, those who died as well as those who didn't, and those who served in peace as well as war. Veterans Day has come to be a holiday honoring all who have served in the defense of our nation.
For those who gave their lives, we have a second holiday, Memorial Day, which originally started as a day the Daughters of the Confederacy set aside to decorate the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers (hence the original name "Decoration Day") and then copied by their Union counterparts who also began observing the day as a memorial to their fallen. That day has now evolved into the day on which we reserve to honor the dead of all of our wars.
It was Memorial Day, not Veterans Day, which was selected in 1958 as the day the unknown soldiers from World War II and Korea were laid to rest along with the Unknown Soldier from World War I in Arlington National Cemetery.
Least We Forget
© 2006 Chuck Nugent
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