Tomorrow is Veterans Day, at least that’s what November 11 has been called since 1954 after World War II veterans lobbied to change the name of the holiday formerly known as Armistice Day. The holiday was originally established – not just in the United States but throughout the world – as the anniversary of the armistice that ended the most deadly war in world history in terms of military casualties. Although United States participation in the war was for less than a year, more than 100,000 young Americans died. (World War II deaths were just over 300,000.) The carnage for the participants who had been engaged In the war for several years before the Wilson Administration took the United States into it were in the millions. French battle deaths were 1.3 million while British deaths were just under a million. German battle deaths numbered over 1.7 million making The Great War, as it was called until war broke out again two decades later, the most deadly war in history. (Overall deaths in World War II were greater because of the death toll from artillery and aerial bombardment among civilians, who had never been targeted before.)
The Great War saw the advent of what is now called “modern warfare.” It saw the advent of submarines, aerial warfare and the machine gun, which ended the use of horse cavalry and introduced mechanized warfare even though the war is often thought of as having been fought in trenches. Artillery was the preeminent weapon of the war, with most deaths caused by shelling. The war also saw the use of gas, and led to bans against gas for future wars (even though most nations continued to manufacture and stockpile chemical weapons.) It ended not with a surrender, but an armistice until Allied and German representatives signed an agreement six months later that was limited Germany’s military capabilities – for the time being.
A year after the armistice, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as a day to remember the men who fought in the war that had concluded a year earlier. In 1926 Congress made the day official as a day of remembrance, but did not declare it a legal holiday. That came in 1938 when Congress proclaimed November 11 to be Armistice Day and a legal holiday. Another major war broke out the following year and the United States became involved militarily two years later. The new war, which had come to be known as World War II, hadn’t even ended before veterans started lobbying to have Armistice Day changed to become a day to honor them as well as their fathers, who had fought in The Great War. A number of states proclaimed Armistice Day as “veterans day” but it wasn’t until June 1, 1954 after another war concluded that Congress amended the 1938 act establishing Armistice Day and changed the name to Veterans Day.
Just as the name of the day has changed, so has the definition of a “veteran.” When Armistice Day was first established, a “veteran” was considered to be someone who had actually participated in The Great War, meaning someone who had actually gone to France. The American Legion actually started in France when military personnel awaiting their return to the United States decided to form an organization. Previous veteran’s organizations had also been made up of men who actually participated in combat operations. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which traces its history to 1899 when members of the 17th Infantry chartered a new organization that eventually combined with other veterans organizations and became a national organization. While the American Legion will basically accept anyone who has ever served in the military as a member, membership in the VFW is still limited to men and women who have actually participated either in wartime operations or in expeditionary operations by the US military and who were awarded a campaign medal. The Veterans Administration was established in 1930 as a single organization to administer government activities “affecting war veterans.” Today, to most Americans, a “veteran” is anyone who has ever put on a uniform regardless of whether they participated in combat operations or even served during wartime.
As we celebrate Veterans Day tomorrow, take time to remember who it was originally set up to honor – those men who have actively participated in America’s wars.