Veterans Day, Why November 11?
The quick answer, which many people know, is that it was the day the First World War ended. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. There was something almost biblical about the time and the date, ending a war that had killed 9 million soldiers and destroyed Europe's world dominance along with four empires and any innocence regarding the truth about modern war.
Another answer would point to the autumn of 1917, a year before the end, and one hundred years ago. That was a period with enormous consequences. American soldiers were training in camps in France and learning how to use French weapons, primarily artillery, for their coming role in the battles of 1918. The US had entered the war in April 1917, in response to the German declaration of unlimited submarine warfare on all shipping heading to Britain and France. Before the First World War was over the American Expeditionary Force would suffer about 320,000 casualties, including 53,402 dead on the battlefields, and another 63,114 dead outside of combat.
Today those numbers would be simply unimaginable. The entire Iraq war and occupation has cost 4,424 dead US soldiers. In addition, around 200,000 Iraqis were also killed, most of them civilians killed by insurgent car bombs and the like. War isn't what it used to be, thankfully. In the huge battles of 1917, that entire American total in Iraq would have been a normal single day's casualty list.
Thus, November 11, 2017 was a grim time for those holding up the banners of freedom, peace, liberty and justice. The Italian army had just suffered the shattering defeat of Caporetto, brought to life for Americans by Ernest Hemingway's classic, A Farewell to Arms. And in the main theater of the war, on the front between the German army and the French and British armies, the vast offensive called Ypres III (Passchendaele), was over at last. That one saw huge armies claw each other to death over fifty square miles of blood-soaked mud in western Belgium. It's flat county there, with ground that liquifies with rain and endless shelling. The British army identified the loss of 40,000 men whose remains were simply never found. Every spring, Belgian farmers find bones and rifles pulled up by their plows. Some British, some German, a few French and Belgian, but who knows at this point, except by reference to some scrap of equipment?
The Ypres offensive's final assault, capturing the ruins of Passchendaele in early November, was carried out by Canadian and British divisions at enormous cost. Pictures of troops standing waist deep in muddy holes with corpses piled nearby, conveyed the anguish of that victory.
The overall horror of Ypres III, laid on top of Verdun, the Somme, Arras, Trentino, Gallipoli, and a dozen smaller battles, was enough to make sleep impossible for General "Jack" Pershing, in command of the American troops in France. Alas, generals in this era were slow to grasp the necessity of new methods and technologies. On battlefields swept by continual shelling, strewn with barbed wire, and raked by machine gun fire, life was very cheap. Unfortunately, Pershing, while he refused to throw American divisions into French and British offensives, except where absolutely necessary, would proceed to throw them into the same kind of bloody morass in the Argonne, in 1918.
Haig, the British commander in chief, had finally overcome his cavalry background's horror of the internal combustion engine, and just two weeks after Passchendaele, he launched a tank offensive at Cambrai, which scored significant success. This new thinking, combined with ever better airplanes, set the stage for the end of the war a year later, when the British and French, aided by the Americans, finally put together the new way of war, combining air, armor, artillery and infantry. This broke the German army and sent them into retreat, while chaos broke out in Germany itself, the Kaiser abdicated and appointed Prince Maximilian of Baden to sue for peace. That produced the Armistice, on November 11, 1918.
And that's why this date is chosen to remember our veterans who died on battlefields far away, whether in Normandy in 1944, or Korea in 1950, or Vietnam in 1968, or indeed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past sixteen years. This was the day when we had to come to terms with what industrial warfare had become and remember those who died in what was billed, so ironically, as "the War to End War."