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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, In Military
At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the Great War ended. This Sunday marks the centennial anniversary of that date.
The historian Fritz Stern memorably called World War I “the first calamity of the twentieth century, the calamity from which all other calamities sprang.”
But as the late historian Barbara Tuchman, wrote in her Pulitzer Prize-winning history, “The Guns of August,” the “war to end all wars” did not begin in August 1914. The seeds of the war were sown four years earlier:
“So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration….The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.”
Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Sets off Domino Effect among European Nations
World War I was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.
The assassination was planned and carried out by six men, a Bosnian and five Serbs. But it set off a domino effect among the various European alliances, epitomized by the intertwining links of the royal houses in attendance at Edward VII’s funeral four years earlier.
According to History on the Net, “Austria-Hungary decided that the death of their heir was directly the fault of the Serbian government and used the opportunity to declare war on Serbia. Russia had a defence treaty with Serbia and rushed to their aid. Germany sided with Austria-Hungry against Russia, causing France to enter the war as they had a treaty with Russia. Britain, who had an alliance with Belgium were drawn into the war as Germany had to get through Belgium to attack France and so it went on.”
Between August 1914 and November 1918, the Allies (the Entente Powers of France, Britain and Russia) lost around six million men. The Central Powers, (a coalition of mainly Germany and Austria-Hungary) lost four million.
Infections, Disease and Spanish Flu Contribute to WWI Deaths
Two out of three soldiers died in battle. In addition, an estimated two million civilians died from diseases caused by the war. The Spanish flu also killed many soldiers in prisoner of war camps. Britain, for one, lost an entire generation of young men.
Because the United States did not enter the war until 1917, American losses were considerably less than those of the other belligerents.
According to the International Encyclopedia of the First World War, American casualties numbered “116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded of the 4.7 million men who served. The USA lost more personnel to disease (63,114) than to combat (53,402).”
Red Poppies Become a Symbol of Remembrance
Canadian surgeon Colonel John McCrae was so emotionally overwhelmed upon seeing the many rows of soldiers’ graves in a Belgian cemetery that he wrote a poem titled “In Flanders Fields.” The poem concluded with the lines “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields.” As a result, the red poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance of the war by Britain, Canada and the U.S. Ever since volunteers have sold red poppies to raise funds for veterans.
Official Tributes Started Soon after WWI’s End
The Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919, marking the official end of World War I. Five months later, on November 11, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day observance.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Created in 1921
On November 11, 1921, an unidentified American soldier killed in France during the war was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The ceremonies were presided over by President Warren G. Harding.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was later renamed the Tomb of the Unknowns. Congress passed a resolution in 1926, calling for an official annual observance. But the date did not become a federal holiday until 1938, when President Roosevelt signed legislation officially marking November 11 as Armistice Day.
Armistice Day Changed to Veterans Day in 1954
At the urging of various veterans groups, President Dwight D. Eisenhower officially changed the name of the holiday from Armistice Day to Veterans Day in 1954.
WWI, Korea and Vietnam Unknown Soldiers Receive Government Recognition
In 1956, President Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknowns of World War II and Korea. Two unknown servicemembers from those wars were interred at Arlington National Cemetery in 1958. An unknown from the Vietnam War was buried there in 1984 in ceremonies led by President Ronald Reagan.
However, due to advances in forensic pathology and DNA testing, the remains of the Vietnam Unknown were exhumed on May 14, 1998. Based on mitochondrial DNA testing, Defense Department forensic scientists identified the remains as those of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie, who was shot down near An Loc, Vietnam, in 1972.
It was later decided that the crypt that had contained Blassie’s remains would remain vacant. The crypt cover has since been replaced with one inscribed “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.”
It is an apt tribute as we honor all U.S. servicemembers living and dead on Sunday, November 11, 2018, precisely 100 years since the guns of the First World War fell silent.