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Least We Forget - A Short History of Veterans Day

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

Honor Guard at Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Washington's Arlington National Cemetery

Honor Guard at Tomb of Unknown Soldier at Washington's Arlington National Cemetery

A Day to Honor Those Who Died in One War Evolves Into a Day to Honor A Veterans

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 issued a proclamation decreeing that 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.

Graves of America's Veterans in Arlington Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Graves of America's Veterans in Arlington Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

Britain and France Each Selected an Unknown Soldier to Represent All of Their War Dead

World War I was an all out war that affected the entire population of the warring nations. Millions of young men and some women were drawn into the conflict either fighting on the front lines or providing support in the rear. The end of the conflict on November 11, 1918 was met with The war seemed to affect almost everyone in some way. A year after the end of the war people were still seeking ways to cope and heal.

The carnage in World War I was massive with much of the fighting having been centered in Europe (especially France). Close to 20 million people died and another 21 million wounded on all sides. Of the 20 million deaths about half were military and half civilian on each side. The deaths of close to 6 million soldiers on the Victorious Allied side alone left thousands of spouses, children, parents and other relatives in mourning for the husbands, fathers, parents and other relatives in mourning for their tragic on foreign battlefields. So, when peace finally arrived on November 11, 1918 there was great celebration in America, Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other Allied nations. November 11th 1918 was a time of joy for most while those who had lost loved ones mourned in silence.

As November 11th 1919 approached it was time for the public as a whole to remember and honor the sacrifice of those who died on the far away battlefields.

Thus 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).

In 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 Brigadier General Wyatt, the commander of the British troops in that part of France, 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.

Tomb of America's Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Tomb of America's Unknown Soldier at Arlington Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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 U.S. Navy 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.

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Eglise de Bnquenay, France 1918 - Photo taken by my Great Uncle Walt during World War I

1918 Photo of Eglise de Bnquenay taken by my great-uncle Walter Fraser while with U.S. Army in France during WW I

1918 Photo of Eglise de Bnquenay taken by my great-uncle Walter Fraser while with U.S. Army in France during WW I

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

Row upon Row of Veteran Graves at Arlington National Cemetery

Row upon Row of Veteran 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

Monument in Niagara Falls, Canada Honoring Canadian Soldiers in W W I

Monument in Niagara Falls, Canada Honoring Canadian Soldiers in W W I

Name Changed to Veterans Day With Focus on all Veterans

The 1953 action by the people of Emporia, Kansas 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 of those who had fought to preserve our freedom and not just those who had made the ultimate sacrifice by death.

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

Fountains & Reflecting Pool at World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Fountains & Reflecting Pool at World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

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

Plaque with 4,048 Representing the 405,399 Dead or Missing American Military Personnel in World War II

Plaque with 4,048 Representing the 405,399 Dead or Missing American Military Personnel in World War II

No More Unknown Soldiers

With the addition of an unknown soldier from World War II and one from the Korean Conflict the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier now contains three unknowns.

The 20th Century's industrial combat with its larger and more destructive bombs and other instruments of modern warfare resulted in bodies being blown apart and made unidentifiable. Twentieth Century warfare produced a considerable number of unknown remains of many soldiers which, when they were found, were buried with their comrades in military cemeteries with the inscription Unknown in place of a name.

Now, using modern DNA testing and other techniques, we are usually able to identify remains of those killed in combat. This provides some solace to family but young men and women dying in combat is still hard on the family and friends they leave behind.

Washington, D.C. - World War II Memorial Section Honoring Those Who Fought in the Pacific Theater of the War

Washington, D.C. - World War II Memorial Section Honoring Those Who Fought in the Pacific Theater of the War

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2006 Chuck Nugent


davidseeger from Bethany, OK on November 11, 2010:

Good hub! I thought I knew all about the day, but you gave me some information I didn't know. Thanks.

ucuzoma on January 23, 2010:

Veterans day is a memorable day for us. The whole picture of the scenarios still fresh in our minds. Kudos to the VETENERANS

ciidoctor on November 20, 2009:

good hub,thank you.

Its only a Game on November 15, 2009:

Good work my man.

Thank a vet!

book review on November 11, 2009:

Happy Veteran's Day

cait on November 10, 2009:

they are truly are heroes my dad is a veteran so i know wat its like to live with one happy veterans day people

KellyEngaldo on November 08, 2009:

Wonderful hub - great content and photos. Veterans are truly our heroes. Happy Veterans Day! And World Peace Day too!

pranesh on October 09, 2007:

salute those bravehearts, who sacrifice their life for their country.

irina on November 11, 2006:

Veteran's Day is great.I love Vetearn's day.

glassvisage from Northern California on November 10, 2006:

good pictures. I once did a feature on Veteran's day and now I can't help but think about what they have done for our country ever November.

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