It happened today - November 11, 2015
Well, you know what this is the anniversary of. At least if you live in the British part of the Anglosphere. In the United States Memorial Day is the last Monday in May because it arose earlier out of their formative Civil War. But here it’s the day the guns fell silent in 1918. And, be it noted, the day citizens did in 1919.
The first two minute silence in honour of those who died in the line of duty came just a year after the war, part of a tradition inaugurated by King George V. And it is such a powerful event that in the United States Nov. 11 is also set aside, although there it is Veterans Day, rightly honouring those who did come home.
Some people grow careless as time passes. And of course other wars, large and small, have been fought since the “Great War,” wars that did not end on Nov. 11. As were other wars, large and small, crucial and minor in their strategic and historical impact, before World War I. But there was something different about that war.
The scale of the slaughter, the depth of commitment of all society’s resources, the sense of the grand civilizational stakes, rightly made it a focal point for all that commemoration. As indeed did the American Civil War for the United States. It’s superficially curious that the American version of Remembrance Day should have come not from the Revolutionary War and the founding of the nation. But it makes sense.
The Revolutionary War was, in terms of casualties, a far smaller affair. 18th century casualty lists are necessarily highly approximate but Wikipedia estimates the Revolutionary side suffered 6,824 killed in battle, and “25,000 to 70,000 dead from all causes” with British losses smaller. But that’s not the real point.
Somehow the Revolutionary War seems to have confirmed a revolution in hearts and minds earlier, as well as yielding the highly celebratory Independence Day that commemorates the cause for which those men (and some women) suffered and died rather than the sacrifice. But the Civil War tested that nation on a scale, and within its community, that overshadows the Revolutionary War in terms of its historical scope. As Lincoln rightly put it, the Civil War rather than the Revolutionary War tested whether self-government can endure.
In the same way, one can point to the Napoleonic Wars or even the Spanish Armada as vital to Anglosphere liberty. But somehow it was the showdown in 1914-18, when everyone was in it both by serving, having family members or friends serve, losing loved ones, and by the commitment of all society’s resources to a contest requiring perseverance on top of all the other qualities it tested to the utmost.
On Nov. 11 we remember the dead of all those wars, those who returned wounded in body, mind or spirit, and those who came back relatively unscathed having risked all for our way of life. World War I is the focus of a much broader commemoration, and rightly so.
They knew it a year later. Something had to be done to mark the war that had not ended all wars but somehow came to stand for all of them. And it still must, and is.
Lest we forget.