11-11-11, 100 years later

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Armistice Day Parade on Main Street in Campbellsville, Ky., Nov. 11, 1939. From 1919 to 1954, Veterans Day was referred to Armistice Day in honor of the treaty signed Nov. 11, 1918 ending World War I.  – (Courtesy of Columbia Magazine. Photo from the collection of Larry Smith)

Recent generations have forgotten or possibly never heard of Armistice Day and its significance to American and world history.  How many have heard or understood the meaning of the immortal words, “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month?”  Eleven A.M. on November 11, 1918 marked the signing of the armistice between the Allied Nations and Germany, at Compiegne, France, ending hostilities on the Western Front of the First World War.   This day would become a national holiday in the United States as well as many of the Allied Nations.

Today, in the United States, Veterans Day, which honors our Veterans, of all wars, has replaced what was originally a day to pause as a nation to celebrate world peace and to remember the terrible costs of war—including the loss of so many lives.  Commemorating the dawn of peace after the world war, and paying tribute to the Soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice (Memorial Day had already been established as a holiday by this time), also emphasizing the spirit of patriotism.

In 1919, a year after peace had been established, Armistice Day was celebrated across the country, with Veteran reunions, parades and celebrations.  Across Kentucky nearly every community held a ceremony.  On October 28, 1919, Governor James D. Black issued a proclamation designating November 11th as Armistice Day in the Commonwealth.  The proclamation read:

As moral and educational influences, holidays are of inestimable value.  For example, the stimulus to Christian gratitude that comes from the annual observance of Thanksgiving Day throughout the nation cannot be easily exaggerated.  Nor can the greatness of our country and its lofty mission fail of renewed appreciation in the annual celebration of the republic’s natal day, July 4.

But a few months ago the country was at war—a war into which it entered with reluctance, but from which it emerged with glory.  For us not a war of aggrandizement, nor of vengeance, not for commercial supremacy, but Soldier, Sailor and Marine, by the hundred thousands, went forth to fight fiercely and fall bravely for the free institutions of the world and the untrammeled right of the peoples of the earth to peaceful, prosperous and contented lives.  With swift zeal and rank and file—a great host sprang to arms.  They were recruited from the flower of our manhood; they were cheered by their hope in humanity; they were made strong in the confidence of their cause.  The earth trembled under their tread like a floor beaten with flails, and all the avenues of our great cities ran with rivers of burnished steel.  Blessed is that country whose citizens will fight for it, and are willing to give the best they have to preserve it.

The living who came back from that struggle wrought well—the dead have not died in vain.  No heroic sacrifice is ever wasted.  The characters of men are molded by what their forbearers have done, and the future is nourished by the inspiration furnished it by the present.  All the unconscious influence of the great deeds of Anglo-Saxon history are treasured up in American souls.  Therefore, as an inspiration to generations yet unborn, let the intrepid courage and fearless heroism of our soldier boys at Chateau Thierry and the Argonne, be emblazoned upon the spotless escutcheon of American arms.

November 11th, 1919, is the first anniversary of the signing of the armistice which ended the World War.  This day may appropriately be called Armistice Day—a day dedicated to patriotism.  The observance of this day is inaugurated with the hope that it will be kept up from year to year.  Think of the character of the men who went to war.  Think of the high and sacred cause in which they were enlisted.  We cannot do a wiser thing than to honor the defenders of the flag.  Let not the vandalism of neglect nor the ravages of time remind us that we are forgetful of our soldiers.

Therefore, I, James D. Black, Governor of Kentucky, designate November 11, 1919, as Armistice Day, and urge its proper and fitting celebration throughout the Commonwealth.

Done at Frankfort, this 28th day of October, in the year of our Lord, one thousand, nine hundred and nineteen, and in the eighth year of the Commonwealth.

                                                James D. Black, Governor.

In his 1919 Armistice Day message to the country, President Woodrow Wilson closed by stating:

  To us in America, the reflections of Armistice day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory both because of the thing from which it has freed us, and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.

Nearly five years later, in 1924, the Kentucky Legislature passed an Act establishing each November 11th, as Armistice Day, a State holiday.

Chapter 127.

AN ACT designating the 11th day of November of each year a legal holiday, to be known as Armistice Day.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky:

That the eleventh day of November of each year 1924 and the eleventh day of November of each year thereafter is hereby declared a legal holiday to be known as “Armistice Day,” and the same shall be recognized, classed and treated as other legal holidays under the laws of this State.

                                                            Approved March 25, 1924.

On June 4, 1926, the U. S. Congress passed a resolution that the “recurring anniversary of November 11, should be commemorated with Thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace between nations” and that the President should issue an annual proclamation calling for the observance of Armistice Day.  By an Act approved on May 13, 1938, November 11 became a legal federal holiday, “dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.”

The First World War, “the war to end all wars,” sadly did not “end all wars,” the United States would soon become involved in two other wars, World War II followed by the Korean War.  In 1954, after lobbying efforts by Veterans’ service organizations, the 83rd U. S. Congress amended the 1938 Act which had established Armistice Day a federal holiday, striking the word “Armistice” in favor of “Veterans.”  President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed legislation on June 1, 1954, changing the name and meaning of what had been a day to celebrate peace to a day to honor American veterans of all wars.

In 2018, we commemorate the centennial of the “war to end all wars” and the birth of Veterans Day. Click here to learn more about the Kentucky National Guard in World War I.

Click here for more WWI Centennial commemoration from the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs.