Does Anyone Still Remember Armistice Day?
So Many Wars, Such a Limited Calendar
Written by Duane Bradford. Last updated Saturday November 11th, 2006
By DUANE BRADFORD
"I never shall forget the night we started our big barrage, the night before the drive started," the American soldier wrote to his wife. "It had rained all evening, and we had been marching for several hours.”
The candle flickered in the dugout somewhere near the Meuse River in France, and a little hot wax spilled onto the page of the letter.
The soldier scribbled an apology to his wife for the spilled wax, and, lonely, wet and cold, he poured out words of another weary day in the fall of 1918 during the “War To End All Wars”, World War I.
Although he didn’t know it then, the end of the war was just ahead. It would later be known as Armistice Day in the United States, marking a truce between the Central Powers and Allies. The pact directed that hostilities cease at 11 o’clock of that 11th day of that 11th month of 1918. But until that hour, the soldier plodded on.
“Arrived at a woods near the front lines right by some of our big, barking guns,” he wrote. “That night I was soaked through. I woke from my bed on the ground and found I was sleeping in a puddle of water with rain still coming down. I was so tired I fell off to sleep with the heavy bombardment barking from all around us. Lay in this condition until daybreak," he wrote, painting a picture that captured some of his agony of war and revealing to me a facet of my father’s life that I had never known.
The letter created one of the scenes and stories that leaped into life when, decades later, I opened the delicate brown pages of letters carefully preserved in an old cardboard box by his wife -- my mother. When my father wrote those letters to his 22-year-old wife of one year, he was a 22-year-old sergeant of a U.S. Army combat engineer company. He had recorded in diary fashion events of the last few months of World War One as his Fifth Division, 7th Engineers, Company "D", slogged through the mud of eastern France toward Germany building pontoon bridges, stringing barbed wire, digging trenches and building roads to help move the men and machines of war.
In later years while his four children were growing up, my dad rarely spoke about the gritty scenes of war. Oh, he did mention seeing his company commander obliterated by a direct artillery shot while astride his beautiful white horse, whose welfare was of greater concern by the men than that of the commander. Other than that, few stories were told and no one seemed to ask -- least of all me, his youngest who, when old enough to begin inquiring about World War One, was immersed in the excitement of the Louisiana maneuvers and World War Two.
But around our house in the ‘thirties, November 11th was always Armistice Day. On that day, dad draped the flag on our front porch. On that day at 11 o’clock in the morning, there was silence everywhere for two minutes. On that day at that hour everyone stood still. Cars stopped. It was a day designed to preserve the memory of the 320,000 American casualties in that European conflict.
As our wars flourished during the century, Congress in its wisdom decided to lump their many commemorative days (will we get a new one soon?) all into one day - Nov. 11 - and call it Veterans Day. While their wisdom eliminated the need for creating a host of holidays for the various wars, however, it diluted the significance of them all - especially the 88-year-old World War I after whom the day was created. So the memory of that conflagration has all but escaped American memory.
But not at our house today. For reasons that might be best understood in a re-reading of how my dad slept in a mud puddle somewhere in France in 1918, the flag will fly at our place that day because it is Armistice Day.