Monday, November 12, 2012

Honoring Veterans Day: A Brief History of the Eleventh Hour

D.A. Stiels
Today we honor the millions of American and foreign veterans who were called upon to serve their nations in the many wars, conflicts and armed struggles that have tragically interspersed the landscape of every continent and all the oceans in between throughout modern civilization. In this most honorable and courageous profession, it must be considered the supreme sacrifice of all brave men and women who take up arms in defense of their nation’s safety and ideals that they willingly forsake their own personal fulfillment and prosperity in order to better the lot of their national community by contributing their lives to the most highest of causes. For it is due to the often thankless and challenging tasks of soldiery in general that the nation as a whole is able to export its most defining and benevolent endowments to human civilization and at the same time, ensure that a consistent level of noble character is sufficiently maintained and passed onto succeeding generations for the preservation of national greatness.

We honor our veterans for the simple fact that it is through their humble and honorable sacrifices that our whole national identity is properly sustained and emboldened to the fruits of our labor. Veterans are thus the main cogs that keep the gears of national prosperity rolling forward, especially when the world around us is fraught with so many adverse impediments. Whether enlisted men, commissioned officers or conscripted recruits, all veterans share one definitive aspect of their experience that can never be plausibly imparted to their most grateful and unwitting, civilian benefactors; that is the knowledge of living a day-to-day, mostly dreadful existence under the most tense and debilitating conditions known to man, where both death and danger continuously lurk in the most unsuspecting of places. It is the acute combat experience that sets the veteran apart from most of their untested, civilian counterparts and which elicits the knowledge of the veteran’s violent tribulations with the poignant but necessary lessons that must be continuously conveyed to the nation’s policymakers in order to ensure the survivability of the culture and society in which we live. The veteran must therefore be considered the main instrument of a nation’s greatness and the one indispensable feature of a people’s historical quest to shape and influence civilization. 

Our veneration of the combat veteran was not always adorned with the stately pomp and circumstance of a national holiday. On the contrary, despite a vast and violent history of nearly incessant armed conflict throughout all corners of the globe, it wasn’t until the end of hostilities to that once greatest of human struggles, WWI, that the powers of western civilization decided to pay tribute to the men and women who continuously fight and die for their nations’ during times of war. Maybe it was perhaps the sheer scope of human loss during WWI that challenged the world’s leaders to formally recognize the immense sacrifices made by their soldiers and sailors to the further advancement of national and cultural polities. It was after all, the deaths of some twenty million, active service members worldwide that best illustrated the monumental cost of providing and protecting a political system that was not universally condoned by the world-at-large. If modern warfare was to bring about the catastrophic clashes of civilizations that all the experts were predicting, than it stood to reason that the national political elites would have to honor those soldiers who could continuously be counted on to act on behalf of their nation’s best interests, when the clouds of war came threatening abroad. 

As a direct result of the colossal human loss during WWI, the western world finally gave time to contemplate the enormous sacrifice of their war veterans and moved to implement a national day of remembrance for the soldiers and sailors that fought and died in the Great War of 1914-1918. Of course, that war was still far from over even as late as the summer of 1918, as the German Army was still locked in battle far outside the borders of their imperial homeland. But the long war had indeed taken its toll on the agitated and deprived German people, who were in the midst of a very messy, communist, urban insurrection on the streets of Berlin, Munich and Hamburg. After realizing the failure of their three massive military offensives on the Western Front during the spring and summer and then experiencing a renewed push by the growing armies of the Entente alliance, the German High Command began actively pursuing a political decision which would end the war in Europe on more favorable terms than the unpromising military situation could provide. At the same time, Germany’s military elite began a nominal push for a democratic revival in the German government, at the expense of the centuries-old, Imperial Prussian monarchy.

In the beginning of October, 1918, the German High Command instituted several changes in the political makeover of the Berlin government which it was hoped, would make the Entente alliance more receptive to a possible political settlement of the war. Alluding specifically to US President Woodrow Wilson’s less punitive, “14 Points Proposal”, the German generals sent a host of political representatives to initiate peace negotiations with the American president, who they felt would give Germany a fairer deal than the French or British governments. But Wilson’s proposals also came with one particularly objectionable demand that the German Kaiser abdicate the throne in Berlin as a main prerequisite to further negotiations. The German High Command, which had already balked once before to the Entente’s more intolerable demands, had little time to contemplate their options because the political unrest that was overtaking the country was now threatening to erupt into civil war. On October 29, the high command’s authoritative, military mastermind Erich Ludendorff gave way to Gen. Wilhelm Groener and the German military entered into negotiations with a largely leftist, provisional government in Berlin to forego a possible communist revolution in the capital.

After consolidating their power with a civilian government in Berlin, Groener reached out to the Entente to begin negotiations on an armistice. Under the authority of the German Commander in Chief, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the Germans sent civilian legislator Matthias Erzberger to France to negotiate on Germany’s behalf, instead of a mainly military delegation which might not be greeted as receptively by the western allies. After the Kaiser abdicated on November 9, the main political obstacle was removed from the proceedings and the German delegation reluctantly signed the armistice early on the morning of November 11, 1918. Thus the official cessation of hostilities was directed to begin at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month of 1918, a little more than four years after the start of WWI. Yet although the armistice was certainly welcomed on all sides of the battlefront, the uncertain lines of the static fighting on the Western Front assured that at least the Entente would move to better their advantage by attempting to regain as much German-held territory as was militarily possible, in the five hour time frame from the signing of the armistice until it officially went into effect.

It was under these circumstances that the final day of WWI saw one of the costliest days of fighting on the Western Front during all of 1918. There would be nearly 11,000 casualties during the last day of the war, in which 2,738 were listed as KIA; the vast majority of them among the western allies because of their insistence on taking as much enemy territory as they could. About one hour before the armistice was to go into effect; Pvt. Augustin Trebuchon was felled by a single bullet in the back as he headed toward the front to tell his comrades that hot soup would be served after 11am. He was the last Frenchman to die during WWI. About a half an hour later,Cpl. George Edwin Ellison, of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers was killed by German sappers as he was scouting new positions near the front at Mons, Belgium. Ellison was Britain’s last confirmed KIA during WWI. Ten minutes before zero hour, German officer Lt. Tomas was blown to bits by an American artillery round in his dugout near the Meuse-Argonne sector of the Western Front. Tomas was the last German soldier killed during WWI. Roughly two minutes before the armistice was to begin, George Lawrence Price, a private in the Canadian Army was killed outside of Mons. He was the British Empire’s final casualty in the First World War. Less than one minute before the armistice, American Pfc. Henry Gunther was gunned down by surprised German soldiers as he charged an enemy trench line outside of the Argonne Forest in Northern France. Gunther has the unfortunate distinction of being the last soldier killed in all of WWI. 

One year to the day after the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Nov. 11, 1919 as America’s first celebration of Armistice Day. This commemorative gesture was reciprocated also in London, Paris, Brussels, Ottawa, Canberra and Rome. Much of central and Eastern Europe was still embroiled in armed conflict after the collapse of the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, so they were not nearly as receptive to Armistice Day as their western cousins. The US Congress then adopted a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926 observing November 11 as an official day of remembrance for all those that served and died during the Great War of 1917-1918. But the establishment of Armistice Day in America did not take on national holiday status until it was officially approved by an act of congress and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt, on May 13, 1938. In America, Armistice Day took on a distinctly veteran connotation following the determined crusade of WWII soldier Raymond Weeks, who sought a universal recognition of all feats of service for the millions of American soldiers who participated in the war efforts of both the first and Second World Wars. His efforts were finally acknowledged by a grateful American government when on June 1, 1954; President Dwight Eisenhower promptly signed into law a bill converting Armistice Day into Veterans Day, in national tribute to the soldiers that fought in the armed services during wartime.

We here at von Clausewitz’ Wit extend our thanks to the brave servicemen of the American armed forces and the millions of other courageous soldiers throughout the world who willingly offer their lives in defense of their country’s gracious support for the ideals of western civilization. It is only through the noble intervention of our heroic soldiers, sailors and airmen that we are able to attempt our own virtuous pursuits of the American Dream and hopefully contribute to the majestic causes and ideals that our veterans have so selflessly sacrificed for. We share in a moment of silence in tribute to the veterans that have made all of our lives so promising and bearable and have enriched our existence with a magnanimous appreciation of humanity’s more honorable qualities. Your sacrifice will never go unheeded or ignored and may the countless blessings of God’s most saintly figures follow you all through all of your personal endeavors. Thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts.  

We salute those soldiers of WWI, like the millions of British forces that charged over the tops of their trenches on the Somme
and the soldiers who bravely defended their positions along the Aisne
for those that endured the hellish unpredictability of urban warfare in the cities of Europe during WWII
and who marched into battle with nothing more gratifying than the trust and support of their fellow soldiers
who waded ashore into hostile islands in the Pacific, resolute in their cause and determined in their faculties
to secure victory at sea or on land or wherever their path to danger should lead them
from the seawall at Utah Beach during the dreadful landings in Normandy on D-Day
to the burned-out jungles in the hostile South Pacific island of Peleliu
to the mountainous terrain along the 38th parallel in Korea
and the violent fight for Seoul. Combat veterans remain undeterred from their goals
whether they are dropped from the skies in Vietnam
and sheltering themselves from a sudden blast of napalm
in Iraq or Afghanistan
the fight is always on and never really over
until it is time to come home
from the trials and tribulations of war
for however long that may be.!