Today is the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, and it will be commemorated very differently on each side of the Atlantic and across the borders of Europe. It’s a reminder that not all “victors” experience wars in the same way, and that their citizens can have almost as much difficulty as those of the vanquished states in coping with the collective trauma of conflict.
For Americans, Veterans Day celebrates the survivors of all the nation’s 20th and 21st century wars. In France and Britain, by contrast, the mood is altogether more somber. In these countries, it is the dead who, since 1919, have been the focus of the ceremonies.
Why this difference? After all, for citizens of all three countries the date marks a shared victory. In the jargon of the time, Nov. 11, 1918, was the day of their soldiers’ triumph over “Prussian militarism,” the vindication of a “fight for civilization” and the successful finish of a “war to end all wars.”
In the years after the war, official ceremonies in the United States reflected these victorious ideals and celebrated “world peace” — it was only after World War II that the day was dedicated specifically to veterans. The touchstone of loss and suffering for Americans remained the Civil War, the world’s first industrial conflict, which 50 years before World War I had taken the lives of more than 600,000 soldiers. Memorial Day (or as it was originally known, Decoration Day) was first instituted in May during the late 1860s to commemorate these fallen.
In contrast, it was only in August 1914 that the horrors and shock of modern warfare came to Europe. The Great War, as the conflict is still known in France and Britain, was a prolonged and vicious struggle demanding the commitment of nations’ wealth and manpower on an unprecedented scale.
Over four years, armies millions of men strong clashed indecisively in horrendous conditions. For the first time on this scale, genuine home fronts formed, as civilians were targets of bombings and food blockades. British war losses, at more than 700,000 men, remain the heaviest in the country’s history. French and German dead were even more numerous, totaling 1.4 million and likely 2 million, respectively.
It was the need to come to terms with this immense loss of life that shaped European commemorations of Nov. 11. On the armistice’s first anniversary in Britain, a two-minute silence was observed at 11 a.m., the time the fighting ended; industry was shut down, traffic halted and people across the country fell quiet to remember the nation’s dead. In France, public grief was expressed more loudly, local communities gathering every armistice day to hear the names of the dead read out by a war orphan, and responding in unison, “mort pour la patrie” — “died for his country.”
Cenotaphs were built to comfort the bereaved whose relatives had no known resting place — the bodies of hundreds of thousands of men had been lost on the battlefield or eviscerated by shellfire. In 1920, “Unknown Warriors” were chosen and entombed in London and Paris; Rome followed suit in 1921.
In towns and villages more modest memorials and plaques to the fallen were erected, becoming an enduring feature of Europe’s landscape. At veterans’ insistence, Nov. 11 was declared a national holiday in France in 1922, and Germany too introduced an official “people’s day of sorrow,” or Volkstrauertag, in 1925 to honor its war dead.
Today, the commemoration of Nov. 11 varies greatly across Europe. For Poles, the holiday is not a day of mourning but rather of celebration, commemorating the rebirth of their nation in 1918 after more than a century of occupation by Austria-Hungary, Prussia and Russia. In Italy, the war dead are remembered on Nov. 4, “the feast of the fallen,” the day in 1918 that fighting came to an end on its battlefront. Across Central Europe though, the greater horrors of the Second World War have subsumed those of its predecessor within popular memory; in Germany, for example, commemoration of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities now takes precedence over the losses of the last century’s first conflagration.
Yet in France, where the death toll of 1914 to 1918 exceeded that of 1939 to 1945, the dead of World War I retain a strong grip on the national conscience. Across the country today, local mayors will lead remembrance services, the names of long-buried soldiers will be read out, military bands will play and citizens will sing “La Marseillaise.”
In Britain, where an estimated three-quarters of the population paused during the two-minute silence on the armistice’s 80th anniversary and where, in 2002, a BBC poll rated the Unknown Warrior as the country’s 76th greatest citizen, public memory of the war is even stronger. Visit the country (or its former dominions including Canada and New Zealand) in November and you will still see paper poppies being widely worn — a reference to the blood-red flowers which grew on the shell-torn battlefields and to John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields.”
The brainchild of an American educator, Moina Michael, the poppies have been sold since 1921 to support war widows and veterans; a record 37 million were purchased in Britain in 2006. Even 90 years after the war’s end, the rites and symbols of what George Kennan termed “the great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century retain their poignancy.
Alexander Watson, a research fellow at Cambridge University and the author of Enduring the Great War.