Happy November 11!
You’ve probably let this national holiday go by unobserved year after year, maybe feeling a little guilty for not celebrating, perhaps puzzled because there’s a big parade snarling traffic, even perplexed that sometimes you’ve been given a paid holiday off – other times not.
Just like the Fourth of July and Christmas, this official nationwide holiday doesn’t shift annually to the nearest Monday like Memorial Day, Labor Day and Presidents Day. Instead, it always falls on the eleventh day of the eleventh month – commemorating an incredible event that occurred about a century ago at the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour.
But why should we celebrate November 11?
Because it’s the birthday of the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Of World War II’s General George S. Patton? Or author Kurt Vonnegut, and Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Demi Moore and Jonathan Winters! No, and neither do we celebrate it merely because it’s the birthday of notorious gangster Lucky Luciano, traitorous-spy Alger Hiss and California politician Barbara Boxer.
A Special Day in Refrigeration
A search of the U.S. Patent Office records would tell you November 11 is the day in history that the great physicist Albert Einstein filed his design for kitchen refrigerators.
That’s right. He’s better known for developing the general theory of relativity – E=mc2, one of the pillars of modern physics. However, if you’ve ever owned a propane-powered icebox, you’ll be surprised that it was probably a Einstein-Szilard refrigerator jointly invented in 1926 by Albert Einstein and his student Leó Szilárd and patented in the United States on November 11, 1930 – U.S. Patent 1,781,541.
However, November 11 is not internationally celebrated as Refrigerator Day.
Nor is it …
No, it’s not a national holiday because on November 11, 1620, the Mayflower Compact calling for "just and equal laws" and self-government was signed by the pilgrims aboard the Mayflower just before they landed in what is now Provincetown on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Nor because on November 11, 1889, the State of Washington was admitted as the 42nd state of the Union. Nor because in 1926 the United States Numbered Highway System was established, giving us such famous cross-country highways as U.S. Route 66.
Sports fans may or may not know that on this date in 1868 the New York Athletic Club held the first recorded amateur track and field meet indoors or that in 1946 the New York Knicks played their first game at Madison Square Garden. Or that in 1997 Roger Clemens of the Toronto Blue Jays became the third major league player to win the Cy Young Award four times
A Special Day
Yes, it was on November 11, 1938 that Kate Smith first sang Irving Berlin's "God Bless America" on network radio. And it is on this date in 1981 that stuntman Dan Goodwin scaled the outside of Chicago’s 100-story John Hancock Center in six hours – and was promptly arrested. Following his example in 1998, Jay Cochrane set a record for the longest blindfolded skywalk. He strolled 600 feet on a tightrope in Las Vegas strung between the towers of the Flamingo Hotel.
And, no, this is not a national holiday because in 1675 Gottfried Leibniz demonstrated integral calculus for the first time to find the area under the graph of y = ƒ(x).
No, the reason we celebrate is because it’s Veterans Day in the United States. Note the lack of an apostrophe. According to the U.S. government, it is not Veteran’s Day nor Veterans’ Day, but instead Veterans Day – although it is often written incorrectly.
It’s Armistice Day in New Zealand, France, Belgium and Serbia. It’s Remembrance Day throughout the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth, including Australia and Canada.
When it was first observed, many people worldwide observed a moment of silence at 11 a.m. local time each year to honor their nation’s soldiers who fought in what was first known as The Great War, then later came to be called World War II
The War to End All Wars
World War I ended officially at the 11th minute of the 11th hours on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. Fighting came to an end with the signing of an armistice between the Allies and Germany. The authors of the surrender documents declared that the conflict had been the “War to End All Wars” – and that everlasting world peace would follow.
It did not. Barely 21 years later, fighting resumed as World War II broke out across Europe, Africa and Asia and off the coasts of Australia and North and South America – involving 61 countries and 1.7 billion people, three quarters of the world's population. Fifty million lost their lives.
A Lethal Date
November 11 already had a deadly place in history. In 1673 it marked the Second Battle of Khotyn, a little-remembered but historic battle in which united European forces under the command of the great Polish general Jan Sobieski drove back invading Muslims who had already been expelled from Spain and turned back at the gates of Vienna, Austria.
It was in the battle at Khotyn that a new innovation learned from the Chinese – missiles tipped with high explosives – were successfully used to help drive back the invaders.
In the United States, November 11, 1864, is still remembered in the American south as the day that Union General William Tecumseh Sherman torched Atlanta, Georgia, burning it to the ground as he marched to the sea – destroying everything in his way, determined to break the South’s will and its ability to supply the Confederate army.
Justifying his brutality, Sherman told New York newspapers bluntly, “War is Hell.”
The Great War
The devastation that became known as World War I began on July 28, 1914 as the Austrian-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. Four days later, Russia and Germany declared war on each other and France ordered a general mobilization.
Starting it all was the assassination in Yugoslavia of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne. Austria-Hungary blamed Serbia, but Russia supported Serbia and German’s emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, supported Austria-Hungary.
Germany warned Russia that full mobilization against Austria-Hungary would mean war. Germany responded by declaring war. Russia’s ally, France, urged Great Britain to proclaim its support. A day later, German soldiers crossed into Luxembourg as part of a strategy to invade France through neutral Belgium. France and Germany declared war against each other on August 3; that night, Germany invaded Belgium, prompting Great Britain to join the conflict against Germany.
A Bloody Mess
Before it ended officially on November 11, 1918, World War I had drawn in the United States on the side of France and England versus Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Turkish Ottoman Empire. More than 16 million people died – more than half of them European civilians caught in the crossfire.
It was the last great conflict to see horses in cavalry charges – and the first in which tanks, chemical warfare and airplanes played a deadly role.
It ended because of economics. The western allies had ample oil and raw material – and succeeded in cutting off supplies to their enemies. In October 1918, Germany realized that it could no longer carry on the war effort – and began negotiating a cease-fire.
A Famous Train Car
For three days negotiators haggled over the terms of the cease-fire aboard a railway dining car selected by French train engineer Arthur-Pierre Toubeau brought to a siding in the Rethondes Forest near the town of Compiègne. The Germans parked 100 yards away in a carriage built for Napoleon III that still bore his coat of arms. Finally at 5:30 a.m. on November 11, German leader Matthias Erzberger signed the Armistice in the French dining car.
Within 6 hours the war was over – officially at 11:11 a.m.
The diner – Wagon Lits Company car No. 2419D – returned to duty, then in 1927 was ceremonially parked in the forest at the exact spot where the Armistice was signed. There it remained until June 22, 1940, when Hitler forced the French to surrender to him in the same historic carriage – which was hauled to Berlin.
As the Allies advanced into Germany in early 1945, the diner was removed by the Germans for safekeeping to the town of Ohrdruf, but as the Americans entered the town, SS troopers guarding it set it ablaze – destroying it. Not until Armistice Day 1950 was a replacement re-dedicated, the identical Compagnie des Wagon-Lits Carriage No. 2439, built in the same batch as the original.
It was officially renumbered No. 2419D and today sits at the historic spot in Rethondes Forest.
The Treaty of Versailles
The Armistice of Compiègne ended the fighting and marked a complete defeat for Germany. The Armistice was not formally a surrender. Another six months of heated negotiations resulted in the final Treaty of Versailles.
Mostly penned by France’s Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Treaty included the end of hostilities, required German troops to return home, arranged an exchange of war prisoners, promised of cash payments by Germany to the western powers and stipulated the destruction of German warships and submarines.
However, it was the Armistice, the temporary cease-fire, that came to be celebrated worldwide. The first Armistice Day commemoration was observed at Buckingham Palace, commencing with King George V hosting a "Banquet in Honor of the President of the French Republic" during the evening hours of November 10, 1919.
In Washington, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11, 1919, as America’s first commemoration of Armistice Day. The day’s observation included parades and public gatherings, as well as a brief pause in business activities at 11 a.m.
Two years later on November 11, 1921, an unidentified American soldier killed in the war was buried at Arlington National Cemetery outside of Washington, D.C. in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. On the same day, unidentified soldiers were also laid to rest at Westminster Abbey in London and at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
On November 11, 1934, the Shrine of Remembrance was dedicated in Melbourne, Australia. In 2004, New Zealand established Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington.
A False Hope
On June 4, 1926, Congress passed a resolution that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, 1918, should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations” and that the president should issue an annual proclamation calling for the annual observance.
By that time, 27 state legislatures had made November 11 a legal holiday. In1938, Armistice Day became a legal Federal holiday, “dedicated to the cause of world peace” across the globe.
That hope was dashed with World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the Cold War.
Veterans Day Instead
World War II – from 1941-1945 for the United States – resulted in the greatest mobilization of armed forces in America’s history with more than 16 million in uniform. Then in the 1950-53 Korean War, 5.7 million more served.
In 1954, Congress decided to honor those veterans and amended the 1938 Armistice Day Act, striking the word “Armistice” in favor of “Veterans.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the legislation on June 1.
From then on, November 11 became a national holiday to honor American veterans of all wars. In 1968, Congress attempted to create four nationwide three-day weekends for Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Columbus Day. Attempts to include the Fourth of July failed – Independence Day continues to be celebrated on July 4 each year.
Only Briefly a Three-Day Holiday
The first Veterans Day under the new law was Monday, October 25, 1971. However, consternation prevailed. Many states openly rejected the change, citing the tradition worldwide of observing the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
In 1975, after four years of confusion, President Gerald R. Ford signed a new law returning the observation of Veterans Day to November 11, beginning in 1978.
It remains an official federal holiday. However in the years that followed, many businesses began limiting the number of holidays to be observed, giving employees a choice between Veterans Day, Columbus Day, President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, Good Friday and in some areas, St. Patrick’s Day.
The Forgotten Holiday
Nationwide, Veterans Day seems to have suffered the most – with employees often preferring to take the Friday after Thanksgiving as their November holiday – giving their families a four-day weekend. Further, Memorial Day has taken precedence as the national day to remember those who gave their lives for their country.
As a result, Veterans Day has increasingly been observed only by federal employees, post offices and banks.
That has been cause for alarm among such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion – which have continued to observe the day with ceremonies, laying of wreaths at memorials and parades. On November 11, 1984, U.S. President Ronald Reagan accepted the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a gift to the nation from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
On Veterans Day, 1996, the fund unveiled "The Wall That Heals." The work was a half-scale replica of the Vietnam memorial that toured communities throughout the United States for several years.
A Continuing Tradition
Today, Britain has shifted its observance to Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday of November each year. In Italy, the end of the war is commemorated on the 4th of November, the day of the Armistice of Villa Giusti which ended World War I for Italy.
In the United States, an official wreath-laying ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, while parades and other celebrations are held around the country.
A two-minute silence was first proposed by South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick in 1919, a practice begun in Cape Town that quickly spread through the British Empire after a Reuters news correspondent cabled a description of the ritual.
Similar ceremonies developed in other countries. The South Australian State Branch of the Returned Sailors & Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia developed a simple ceremony of silence for departed comrades at 9 p.m. coinciding with the traditional 11 a.m. in Europe – due to the ten-hour time difference between Australia and Europe.
In many parts of the world, veterans observe silence at 11 a.m. local time as a sign of respect. In the first minute, the roughly 20 million people who died in World War II are remembered.
The second minute is dedicated to the living – the wives, children and families left behind by those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
How Will You Celebrate?
In recent years, the U.S. capital has marked Veterans Day with ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery where officials applaud America’s 23 million U.S. veterans.
Events have included concerts featuring such stars as Bruce Springsteen, Oprah, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Eminem, Metallica, Jamie Foxx, Gary Sinise and Will Smith backed up by the U.S. Marine Band and public singing of "God Bless America."
Ceremonies always draw uniformed military personnel and many veterans and their families.
But there’s no need to come to Washington, D.C. to celebrate Veterans Day. Contact your local veterans group – such as the VFW, the American Legion or Disabled American Veterans – and find out what’s planned in your area.
Then, go participate – showing your appreciation to those who fought for your freedom.