Today in the United States, November 11, is Veterans Day—a day we honor our military veterans of all wars. It used to be called Armistice Day, and still is in France and Belgium. Great Britain officially calls it Remembrance Day; unofficially, it’s Poppy Day, for the poppies worn by the celebrants. (The poppy is reminiscent of Canadian physician John McRae’s poem “In Flanders Fields” that remembers the war dead buried there. They are the flowers Americans of a certain generation would recognize in Pete Seeger’s 1960s song.)
In Britain, France and other countries that were participants in the Great War of 1914 – 1918, it has special meaning. It ended four years and four months of mass slaughter in Europe. Twenty million dead in all. The massive destruction and sheer numbers of casualties for France was one of the reason the French capitulated so quickly in 1940. Nothing was worth suffering the same trauma that wiped out a generation of Frenchmen.
Nevertheless, the Armistice that went into effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 is celebrated as an unequivocal victory for France. That nation endured. True enough, it would not have but for the British alliance and, especially, American help at the critical time, but France bore the brunt of the war. It was, in the words of German General Falkenhayn, bled white. (Germany was too, and reacted somewhat differently, as we know.)
The United States changed the name partly because it seemed incongruous to celebrate a day that settled nothing, as demonstrated by a second go around, and a seemingly endless Cold War. Our Veterans Day honors all of those who served in our armed forces, unlike the November 11 holidays in other countries that remember only the war dead.
On an interesting note. In France, where I am as this is written, November 11 is a national holiday in which nearly everything is closed. Because it falls on a Tuesday, Monday is a pont (bridge) day, that many workers also take off to make a four-day weekend. When this, or any holiday, falls on a Wednesday, the two days between the weekend is a viaduct, for which many also take off for a five-day weekend. Leisurely folks, it seems. For Armistice Day, I would say their forbears in 1914 – 1918 earned it.